Dan with colicWhat causes colic?

Colic can be caused by gut “spasms” (e.g. due to a change in diet), impaction of partially-digested food material or sand, stretching of the gut wall by gas, twisting of the gut so that its blood supply is cut off, displacement of a segment of gut from its normal position, stomach ulcers and fatty tumours wrapping around the gut and strangulating it. Horses are prone to colic because of their unusual GI tract anatomy (particularly the length) and the way their gut works.  It is important to note that many other conditions, e.g. urinary problems, azoturia etc, can present as colic.

What are the clinical signs of colic?

Mild colic Moderate colic Severe colic
·         Lip curling

·         Flank watching

·         Restlessness

·         Pawing the ground

·         Dullness

·         Frequently posturing to urinate

·         Lying down and getting up

·         Lying on their side for long periods

·         Violent rolling

·         Sweating

·         Rapid breathing

How can I prevent colic?

Some causes of colic are preventable if good stable management and a regular daily routine are followed:

  • Use an effective worming programme to control parasite levels.
  • Ensure your horse has a constant supply of fresh and drinkable water.
  • Feed small quantities and use good quality, high fibre, feed stuff and include plenty of forage in your horse’s diet.
  • Be consistent with your feeding routine and make gradual changes to your horse’s diet.
  • Ensure your horse has a consistent turn-out and exercise regime.
  • Turn out on good quality pasture, avoiding poor or overgrazed fields or, conversely, lush spring grass.
  • Have an effective dental programme in place because tooth problems can cause digestive issues if food isn’t chewed properly.
  • In sandy areas, avoid feeding horses from the ground as they may ingest large amount of sand.
  • Reduce stress levels by ensuring your horse has a consistent routine and environment and be mindful of stress when travelling your horse.
  • If your horse has a habit of eating his bedding, ensure he is bedded down on something other than straw; this is particularly important if your horse has to suddenly undergo a prolonged period of box rest.

Habits such as crib-biting and windsucking will increase the risk of colic and some horses are more prone to recurrent episodes of colic

Thank you to vets, Rick Farr and Nikki Pursey, of Farr & Pursey Equine Veterinary Services, for their input to this article.

Helpful resources

The Royal School of Veterinary Studies – colic information sheet

The University of Liverpool Equine Hospital


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