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Recognizing the Symptoms of Colic in Horses: What to Look For

horse rolling with colic

The sound of a horse's distressed whinnying emanating from the stables can be heartbreaking, and it's especially unnerving when you can't immediately identify the cause of the horse's suffering. Colic is one of the most common equine ailments, yet also one of the least understood. But with the right understanding and knowledge, the signs of colic can be quickly spotted and appropriate action taken.

In this blog post, we'll explore the symptoms of colic in horses and what to look for when attempting to diagnose this chronic condition.

Key Takeaways

Some common signs of colic in horses include signs of abdominal discomfort such as sweating, kicking at their stomach, lying down, rolling and/or pawing at the ground. Other symptoms can include stretching out and looking back at their flanks, restlessness, loss of appetite and rapid heart rate.

If you wish not to read our complete article, this video is a great summary of the signs of colic.

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Common Colic Symptoms in Horses

Colic is a common digestive disorder in horses that can lead to severe illness or even death if left untreated. It can manifest with a range of symptoms, and recognizing the signs of colic early on is the key for a successful outcome.

Common colic symptoms in horses include:

• Abdominal pain – The most commonly recognized sign of colic is abdominal pain. Horses may paw at the ground, act restless, or kick at their flanks as they search for relief from discomfort. Other times, they will appear withdrawn or uncomfortable while lying down.


horse scratching itself

• Change in appetite – Horses with colic may lose their appetite or become picky eaters. They may also refuse to drink or simply forget to drink altogether. This behavior can be seen as an indicator of colic and should not be overlooked.

• Change in behavior – Colic can cause a horse to become agitated or restless, which is an indication that something is wrong. In some cases, a horse may become depressed and excessively subdued. It’s important to pay attention to these behavioral changes so that you can address any issues quickly and effectively.

• Diarrhea – Horses with colic may experience bouts of diarrhea due to intestinal distress caused by an obstruction or infection. This symptom should be taken seriously since it is often linked to more severe issues such as enteritis or an impaction.

It’s important to monitor your horse closely for any of these signs and contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect their health is deteriorating. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential in helping horses recover from colic successfully, so don't delay professional medical care if one or more of these symptoms appears.

Now that we have outlined common colic symptoms in horses, let's move on to discussing abdominal distress - the next stage when dealing with a case of colic in horses.

Abdominal Distress

Abdominal Distress is a common symptom of colic in horses and can be relatively easy to identify. It is important to monitor your horse’s behavior and condition so that you can spot signs of abdominal pain right away. If the horse’s gut sounds are significantly louder or softer than usual, this may be an indication of colic. Painful reactions to hoof pick ups, lying on their belly and other activities that require movement of the abdomen are also symptoms of abdominal distress. Additionally, horses suffering from colic may become uncomfortable standing still for prolonged periods, attempt to roll excessively and be difficult to handle due to abdominal pain.

While horses generally have a higher tolerance for pain than humans, recognizing the signs of discomfort can help you seek veterinary attention for your horse as quickly as possible before colic becomes more severe and serious health risks arise.

Unusual changes in appetite may also accompany abdominal distress and should not be overlooked. While it is normal for a horse's appetite to fluctuate from day to day, if a horse appears less interested or entirely disinterested in its food over several days, then this could be a sign of colic. Therefore, monitoring what your horse eats on a daily basis alongside paying close attention to any changes in behavior or attitude will help you determine if a trip to the vet is necessary.

Leading into the next section about uncomfortable behavior, it is important to differentiate between behaviors caused by mild discomfort as a result of abdominal distress versus those resulting from more severe medical conditions associated with colic.

  • A recent survey found that up to 80% of horses with colic exhibit abdominal pain.
  • A study published in 2019 reports that nearly 55% of affected horses also show signs of depression and anxiety.
  • An analysis of more than 900 horses with colic found that 38.6% had evidence of gas distension, while 27.9% demonstrated signs of involvement of multiple abdominal organs.

Uncomfortable Behavior

Uncomfortable behavior is one of the most common symptoms of colic in horses. The horse will generally exhibit signs of discomfort, such as rolling, pacing, pawing at the ground, looking at its flanks, or showing signs of anxiety and agitation. If a horse is found to be in general discomfort with no other explanation, it’s critical to consider the possibility of colic.

These signs can sometimes be overlooked or dismissed as normal behavior for a horse, but if these behaviors are accompanied by changes in eating or drinking patterns, or any other noticeable change in the horse’s physical or behavioral condition, it’s important to take immediate action. It's also important to take into account the environment where the horse is kept and carefully observe their behavior over time; this could help to identify any recurring symptoms that could point towards colic.

As colic is typically an emergency situation for animals, it is best practice for anyone involved with caring for a horse to closely monitor their habits and observe them closely for any sudden or ongoing changes that might indicate a need for further diagnosis.

Ultimately, uncomfortable behaviors are often the first sign of colic and should not be taken lightly. As such, if you suspect your horse may be displaying any abnormal behaviors due to potential colic, consult a veterinarian as soon as possible.

That leads us into our next section: diagnosing the cause of Colic in horses. A proper diagnosis will depend upon understanding what pain indicators are involved and accurately interpreting the results of a thorough medical examination.

Diagnosing The Cause of Colic

When trying to diagnose the cause of colic, it is important to consider both environmental and internal factors. Environmental factors may include bedding, feeding, exercise routines or lack of turnout time. Internal causes may be related to conditions such as dental issues, ulcers or parasites.

In order to decide which factor may be causing the colic, it is important for the vet to talk to the owner, and to examine the horse thoroughly. In addition to performing basic tests like a digital rectal examination and listening for gut sounds with a stethoscope, there are more specialized options for diagnosis, such as an ultrasound or a gastroscopy. Depending on your experience and resources available, one should determine which diagnostic route fits within their scope of practice.

For example, many practitioners opt for ultrasound imaging when diagnosing colic in horses; this provides a non-invasive option for diagnosing common issues found during colic surgery, such as displacement or torsion of the intestine. Ultrasound imaging can also provide additional information on structural abnormalities that cannot be acquired via subjective physical examination alone. However, some argue that even if abnormal findings are identified on ultrasound images, further investigation is still needed to determine if they are indeed the primary cause(s) of colic in the horse.


horse recovering in a vet clinic

At the same time, there are others who argue that gastroscopy combined with blood work gives more detailed insight into any issues present in the gut and allows for direct manual exploration of different organs within the abdomen. Although more costly than other approaches and potentially very invasive for horses with fragile systems, it has been proven that more sophisticated tools like gastroscopic exams lead to a higher accuracy rate in identifying true pathological changes.

Ultimately, diagnosing the cause of colic is always complex and must take into account each case’s individual risk factors - regardless of whether you are dealing with basic physical examinations or more advanced tests like ultrasounds or gastroscopies. No matter which route you go down when trying to diagnose colic in your horse patient, it is best practice to act quickly and decisively after you have identified potential triggers by performing a veterinary check-up without delay.

With a veterinary check-up, your primary goal should be both preventing further damage caused by colic and determining an effective course of treatment - which brings us into our next section discussing how best to manage colic in horses: the importance of performing timely veterinary check-ups.

Veterinary Check-up

If the symptoms of colic do not improve in a reasonable amount of time after the horse is treated with home remedies such as walking and administering painkillers, it could be indicative of a more serious issue that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian. Veterinarians can conduct tests such as physical examinations and blood work to determine the root cause of the problem. X-rays or ultrasounds may also be conducted to gain further insight into the situation. In cases where colic is suspected due to dietary change or emotions, veterinarians may recommend dietary changes and/or therapies such as temperature therapy and acupuncture.

In some instances, depending on the type of colic, surgery may be necessary for effective treatment of the condition. While the thought of having an invasive procedure done on your horse can be scary, it’s important to remember that modern veterinary surgery techniques are highly advanced and very safe, giving horses a better chance at survival than ever before. However, it is important to weigh the risks and benefits before making any decisions about surgery for your horse.

Treatment for Colic can be complex and varied, but understanding what to look for, coupled with monitoring your horse’s behavior can help you make informed decisions about when veterinary intervention is necessary. In the next section, we’ll discuss some popular treatment options that are available for horses suffering from colic.

Treatment for Colic

When it comes to treating colic in horses, there are several approaches that may be taken. First, it is important to quickly respond once the symptoms have been noticed, since colic can lead to serious and sometimes fatal consequences if left untreated. Veterinarians may perform a physical exam in order to assess the severity of the colic episode and provide a course of treatment. Such treatments may include administering medications to reduce pain, correcting acidity levels, or performing surgery if necessary.

In some cases, medication may also be prescribed in order to decrease inflammation along with management practices employed to ensure that the horse returns to its normal state of health. Medication might include antibiotics if an infection is present and anti-spasmodics in cases where intestinal spasms are contributing to the discomfort. Veterinary practitioners may also suggest dietary changes and management adjustments in order to prevent further episodes of colic from happening.

Some natural remedies for colic exist as well and can include the administration of herbs such as chamomile and ginger. Herbal supplements can help calm an upset stomach and reduce inflammation associated with colic. However, their effectiveness is not yet scientifically proven, so they should only be used under the advice of a veterinarian. Additionally, homeopathic remedies such as acupuncture have been known to give relief from pains associated with certain types of colic in horses.

All treatments must take into consideration factors such as age, breed, difficulty digesting food, and any other potential contributing factors that could aid veterinarians in providing more effective treatment for each individual's case of colic. Ultimately, no two horses’ medical needs are the same; therefore, each should receive different care based upon its individual needs when recovering from episodes of colic.

With proper diagnosis and treatment plans tailored specifically for the horse's needs, most horses will recover from episodes of colic with minimal consequences. The goal is always to return the horse back to its happy healthy self while doing what is best for its overall well-being during its recovery process. Now that we have discussed treatment for colic in horses, let's turn our attention towards prevention methods so we can help keep episodes of colic away altogether.

Prevention of Colic

While many cases of colic are unavoidable and out of the horse owner’s control, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of a colic episode. It is important to work with a veterinarian to identify potential sources of colic risk on an individual basis and develop tailored prevention plans.

One key factor in preventing colic is the establishment of a daily management routine. Sticking to a consistent schedule when it comes to feeding, grooming, exercise and blanket changes helps create a balance and regularity which can ward against colic episodes. Additionally, an appropriate de-worming program should be established; this should be done according to your veterinarian’s guidance as worming products have different ingredients and can vary in effectiveness depending on the horse’s needs.

Another major contributing factor to colic prevention lies in nutrition. A balanced diet consisting of hay or forage and grains is essential; horses should always have access to fresh water as well. While grain concentrates are a primary source of energy, they should be offered in moderate amounts only - their overconsumption has been linked to several forms of colic, which is why it is important to always weigh out concentrated feeds accurately and feed them separately from other feeds to ensure proper digestion.

There has been some debate about whether or not supplements can help prevent colic. Proponents argue that providing additional nutrients through supplements can help replenish any nutrient deficiencies that may arise due to inadequate feeding or soil deficiency within the area. This can then lead to improved digestion and reduced risk of colic in some cases. Alternatively, opponents feel that supplementing is unnecessary with proper feeding practices already in place as well as potential risks such as contamination or overdose with certain supplements if not monitored correctly by the owner or veterinarian involved.

The final point that should be considered when looking at prevention plans is environmental factors related to housing options, turnout time, bedding materials and surface conditions for riding arenas, which may put horses more at risk for digestive issues like colic.

In conclusion, there are several precautions that horse owners can take when looking at ways to reduce the incidence rate for colic episodes. Establishing a routine management plan combined with an appropriate de-worming program and balanced nutrition are all essential pieces of preventive care, though the appropriateness of supplement use has been heavily debated by experts. In addition, understanding housing options and turnout requirements are also key when considering preventive measures for colic episodes. In our next section we will look at how contributions from observations made by horse owners alongside consultations with veterinarians can offer insight into understanding the incidence rate for colic episodes as well as what actions need taken if one does occur.


In conclusion, recognizing the symptoms of colic in horses is a vital skill for any horse owner. While a definitive medical diagnosis can only be made by a trained veterinarian, there are many warning signs that can alert owners to the possibility of colic and lead them to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Early detection and treatment of colic can make a significant difference to equine health and comfort; therefore, it is important for owners to pay attention to their horses both physically and behaviorally, in order to identify any potential colic issues.

Owners should also be aware of some of the risk factors that may increase the chance of developing colic, so they can do what they can to reduce those risks. Keeping horses healthy through preventive measures such as routine deworming, maintaining a regular feeding schedule with limited access to grain/concentrates, and not making sudden changes in diet or nutritional supplements can help minimize the likelihood of colic. Additionally, giving the horse ample turnout time and regularly monitoring its environment for hazards that might cause stress or injury is also key for avoiding colic.

Finally, even if all precautions are taken, it’s still possible for a horse to develop colic due to a variety of factors. Therefore, being prepared to recognize the signs, should they arise, is essential for all horse owners. With proper knowledge and vigilance, owners can ensure their horse’s health and well-being while minimizing undue suffering in case of an emergency.

Common Questions

What can I do to help relieve my horse’s colic symptoms?

When it comes to relieving colic symptoms in horses, the best thing you can do is take preventive measures. This includes providing your horse with plenty of fresh water and healthy, high-fiber hay, as well as regularly exercising them. If you notice any signs of distress or that they are uncomfortable after exercising, be sure to stop their activity and provide them with rest.

You should also give your horse regular deworming treatments; parasites are a common cause of colic. Lastly, make sure you maintain regular veterinary care for your horse so that any potential health issues can be addressed promptly. By taking these steps and being aware of the signs of colic, you can help reduce your horse’s risk of experiencing this condition.

What are the common causes of colic in horses?

The common causes of colic in horses can be divided into two main categories: nutritional causes and environmental/medical causes.

Nutritional causes include sudden and drastic changes in the horse's diet, a lack of fresh water, or an inadequate supply of dietary fiber. Other nutritional causes can include overfeeding/underfeeding, moldy feeding, parasitism, and feeding unsuitable food (such as apples with seeds).

Environmental and medical causes can include things like inadequate management practices such as a lack of exercise, contact with other horses infected with parasites, inadequate shelter from cold temperatures/hot temperatures, internal/external parasites, sand, the impaction from excessive ingestion of dirt or sand while grazing, dental issues that cause gut discomfort, or physiological stress due to a change of environment or new riding program.

It is important to note that any trauma or injury can also lead to the development of colic in horses. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye out for any changes in behavior (such as lethargy) or signs of distress that could indicate the onset of colic.

Are there prevention measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of colic in horses?

Yes, there are several prevention measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of colic in horses.

First, it is important to ensure your horse has access to ample amounts of clean, fresh water and plenty of forage throughout the day. Having an appropriate deworming schedule can also help prevent colic in horses – however, bear in mind that over-dosing on worming medication can be just as harmful as under-dosing, so care should be taken when selecting a deworming program for your horse.

It is also advisable to stick to a regular feeding routine whenever possible, as sudden changes in diet or activity levels can sometimes trigger episodes of colic. To further reduce the risk of digestive upsets, consider providing daily supplements such as probiotics and prebiotics which aid digestion and help maintain a healthy gut flora.

Finally, it is always important to ensure your horse has access to pasture that is free of toxic weeds or plants. Additionally, regular dental check-ups can help keep your horse’s mouth healthy and help them chew their food more efficiently, reducing the risk of digestive upset and colic related incidents.

Chris Durkan

Chris is an enthusiastic horse rider and enthusiast and lives with his wife and 2 kids , just outside of Brisbane in QLD. He is a self confessed horse obsessed father, and says he makes too many horse and equestrian gear purchases for his wife and kids, which he says, makes him "qualified" to have an opinion on many of the products he buys. While he jokes he's a poor horse dad, he spends his time between his family, his small horse property, working at a local IT firm, and writing for The Equestrian.

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