Volume 1, Issue 5



Speaking Equine is brought to you by:

Dr. John Canning, DVM
(970) 963-4573


In this Issue:

Colic, the number
one killer of horses


Why colic is
a problem

What to do
at the first
signs of colic

Preventing Colic

Colic References


Colic, the number one killer of horses!

Colic is not a disease, but rather a combination of signs that alert us to abdominal pain in the horse. While colic can range from mild to severe, it should never be ignored. Many of the conditions that cause colic can become life threatening in a relatively short period of time. Usually the intensity or frequency of the signs associated with colic is related to the severity of the problem. Horses with violent pain most often have a serious or life threatening problem. Until an assessment of the condition is made by your veterinarian, all horses exhibiting abdominal pain (colic) should be considered at risk for a life-threatening emergency. (American Association of Equine Practitioners) While abdominal pain can be the result of a variety of conditions, with horses, we typically use the term colic to describe pain associated with an intestinal obstruction and/or distension. D. Thal, D.V.M.

In mild cases symptoms may be subtle and easy to miss, for example, a horse may just stand or lie down and look at its flank.

Diagnosing the exact cause of colic can be difficult. The horse's digestive tract is a long, intricate system, where more than 80 different intestinal problems may cause abdominal pain. In addition, other problems, such as diseases of the liver, muscles or kidneys can have symptoms similar to those seen with gastrointestinal problems. Because some of the diseases, such as intestinal strangulations, are life threatening and require surgery, when signs of abdominal pain are observed it should be considered an emergency, call your veterinarian immediately. (Colic AAEP Veterinary Rounds, August 2002)

For information on procedures a veterinarian will undertake to diagnose a case of colic and how to decide if the colic is to be treated medically or surgically see “Doc – Colic in my horses scares me to death! I'd like to know more about it!” A.J. Neumann, D.V.M. The Draft Horse Journal, Summer 2005


Symptoms may be mild, and not so easily spotted, or violent and readily apparent. Watch out for: lack of appetite, lip curling, looking at the side, stretching, pawing, kicking at the belly, lying down or rolling. A horse demonstrating any of these symptoms may have serious problems. (Symptoms of colic)

Why colic cause such a problem

The horse's life style changed a great deal over the past 150 years. Wild horses were active, they continually moved, grazing on coarse grasses throughout the day. Thus they evolved eating small, frequent meals. The horse's digestive system evolved to accommodate a style of life where 80% of their time is spent eating. Many modern horses are confined and fed a rich meal once or twice a day. In addition, some are housed in large numbers in relatively small areas increasing the chance of infestation by parasites.

What to do at the first sign of colic

  • Alert your veterinarian immediately!
  • Be ready to provide a detailed history to your veterinarian. Colic History Form
  • Remove feeding
  • Provide water
  • Allow horse to rest, if it will
  • Some walking may help. Excessive walking is unnecessary and may tire the horse.
  • Keep your horse under close observation

Your veterinarian may proscribe a pain relieving drug which can reduce symptoms of colic pain. Remember, “pain killers” mask the symptoms; they do not cure the cause. Sometimes relief from the pain will allow the system to recover from the cause, pain killers, such as Banamine, are not a “cure for colic.” Because they can mask the signs of colic, be careful not to be misled into thinking that the problem is fixed.

Preventing colic

Safe management practices mimic how horses feed in the wild. While colic can affect even the most well managed horses, good management is key to minimizing its occurrence.

  • Make any management and feeding changes gradually.
  • Establish a consistent feeding and management routine, and stick to it.
  • Provide frequent turnout and consistent daily exercise.
  • Feed multiple times during the day versus one big feeding.
  • Feed a good quality hay as a staple.
  • Keep the amount of grain fed to a minimum for the work the horse is doing.
  • Avoid sand accumulation by not feeding on sandy soils.
  • Implement a vet approved parasite control program.
  • Allow access to clean, fresh water at all times.
  • Pay particular attention to mares around foaling time and those horses which have had bouts of colic before.
    Doug Thal, D.V.M.

Colic References


You will find more information on Equine Emergencies in the next issue of Speaking Equine. Sign up for your free email copy today. The Team at www.SpeakingEquine.com.