Colic is a condition that most horse owners will see sometime during their horse’s lifetime. Colic does not discriminate between age, gender or breed and can be as a result of numerous things.

In our cold Manitoba winters, we most often see impaction colic. This is because horses tend not to want to drink as much water in the colder weather, leading to lots of dry hay in a dehydrated gut – this builds up and causes a blockage. This is just one of many types of colic and many scenarios that predispose horses to colic. Therefore, we will discuss how you, as an owner, can recognize colic as soon as possible and some strategies to try and avoid it all together.

What is colic?

Colic is a broad term that simply means abdominal pain. It encompasses all reasons a horse might have discomfort in this region.

Common types of colic’s:

1)     Spasmatic – Horses have overactive intestines which compresses gas causing discomfort

2)     Impaction – Feed becomes packed up causing obstruction. This often happens at one area in the horse’s colon that has a natural narrowing – the pelvic flexure.

3)     Strangulation – either a “strangulating lipoma” (common in older horses) or the intestines twist cutting off circulation to the intestinal tract in that area

4)     Colon displacement – The large double U-shaped colon of a horse – responsible for most of the digestion – has numerous ways changing its position causing gas entrapment and pain (these are all surgical cases)

5)     Enteritis – infection of the small intestines causing discomfort – often associated with excess fluid production – diarrhea, reflux and fever.

6)     Colitis – Secondary to ulcers or infection

7)     Gastric ulcers – stomach pain – intermittent and chronic

Signs of Colic:

–       Inappetence

–       Lethargy/Dull

–       Rolling obsessively

–       Flank watching – while standing or laying

–       Belly kicking

–       Lack of feces

–       Bloated abdomen

–       Sweating

–       Groaning

–       Overactive/Underactive gut sounds

–       “Rocking horse” stance – Front and back legs extended out to allow more room for the tender abdomen

When to call the vet: 

At any of these signs you can call your veterinarian to discuss what you see and to get advice. Colic’s can turn very badly very quickly so watching and waiting is not advised. Further these horses should be checked on every 20-30 minutes and not left alone for hours before rechecking.

Sometimes we see the signs previously mentioned and they are mimicking colic but are actually another illness. Example – laminitis, leg fractures, infections.

How to take vital parameters and other important ways to assess your horse:

Knowing the vital signs of your horse can help the vet assess the severity of the issue over the phone. Knowing your horse’s baseline vitals ahead of time is a great idea as each horse’s “normal” may be a little different. All you need is a thermometer.

            Normal temperature: 37.0C -38.3C

  • To take a horse’s temperature this can be done with a digital or mercury thermometer. Make sure to have your vet show you how to do this safely. Lubricant makes it easier for you and more comfortable for the horse.

            Normal Pulse: 25-44 beats per minute

  • Using a stethoscope you can put it just behind the horses elbow to hear the heart on the left side of the chest. Count the beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to get beats per minute

  • You can also find a pulse to feel either under the jaw bone (maxillary artery) or a pedal pulse on either side of the back of the fetlock (digital artery). The quality of the digital artery – very dull and hard to feel, or very obvious and bounding is also good information as it can indicate injury or problems such as laminitis.

            Respiratory rate: 10-24 breaths per minute

  • This can be taken by watching the horse’s side rise and fall, and counting how many times of each cycle in 15 seconds – multiply by 4 to get breaths per minute

            Mucous membrane colour 

  • Looking under your horses lip you should see their gum colour – it should be pink. Very pale white or very purple/blue can indicate an issue.

See Dr. Wilson’s video on Facebook for taking your horses vitals!

Other parameters possible to assess:


The skin tent test is done by pinching the horses neck skin up and seeing how fast it returns to normal. A hydrated horse’s skin should bounce back pretty quickly, a dehydrated horses skin stays “tented” even when you let go.


Is their head up, eyes bright, are they listening to noises around them or dazed.

            Gut sounds

An owner will also sometimes hear overactive gut sounds (gurgling guts) and that is good to note. Or a horse than normally has pretty loud gut sounds suddenly sounds quiet.

            Stool quality

          Presence or absence of stool, stool quality – diarrhea, dry hard fecal balls

Nasal discharge, sweating, swelling anywhere on the body, body condition, hoof heat and appetite are a number of other areas you can observe and keep in mind whenever you see your horse so that when the time comes and they are sick you know what is normal for them and what is out of the ordinary

What to do until your vet arrives:

  • If your horse is rolling, try to get a halter on and begin walking them at a slow pace. After a while you can try stopping, if they begin rolling again continue to walk. Do not lunge or run the horse at all. If it us unsafe to approach your horse because they are violently rolling, contain them in a safe area if possible.

  • Get a transport trailer ready or begin to organize borrowing a trailer in the event your horse needs to be hospitalized or go to a referral vet for surgery.

  • Do not feed or water your horse unless otherwise advised by your vet until they get there

  • Do not give any medications unless otherwise advised by your vet before they get there

What to expect when your vet arrives:

A vet will do a thorough exam of your horse when they arrive with the addition of a few tests such as:

  • Passing a nasogastric tube – To assess how much fluid is in the stomach and as an aid to give fluids, electrolytes, Anti-gaz, etc.

  • Rectal exam – This helps vets to assess the placement of the gut, is there impacted feed, is there fluid filled small intestine, is there a severe gas distended colon, is there a mass.

  • Pain control administration – Some horses are so painful they do not respond to injectable pain control medication and this is in itself a test for vets to see how serious and how continuous the pain is, in addition to trying to provide relief.

Potential predisposing risks for colic and how to mitigate them:

  • Cold weather impaction colic: providing heated water to the appropriate temperature to encourage regular drinking, good quality hay that has good digestibility, frequent meals or free hay access, rather than gorging large infrequent meals.

  • Cribbing – this used to be considered a risk factor for colic though more recently the link is less clear and has been refuted. Maximizing turnout is one way to minimize this behaviour.

  • Strangulating lipoma – This is a tumor of the fat tissue within the abdomen that acts like a ball on a string and can wrap around parts of the horse’s gut – there is no way to foresee or prevent this but it is most common in older horse.

  • Gastric or Colon ulceration – Ulceration is a common cause of gastrointestinal pain and can show up as many symptoms in the horse – being cinchy, irritable, intermittent appetite, teeth grinding, fecal changes, weight loss, poor performance, colic etc. We have a fecal test we can run to help assess if there are signs of ulcers and bleeding in the gut. Numerous treatments are available and management strategies like increasing forage and decreasing grain can help these conditions. Talk to your vet for more information on this topic.

  • Sand impactions – Horses who live in very sandy soils and eat off the ground are more at risk of accumulating sand in their gastrointestinal tract. The sand settles and builds up over time and eventually blocks the gut. Feeding supplement in buckets and bins and keeping hay off the ground helps to prevent this. Testing the feces is relatively easy and can be done by mixing feces with water and seeing how much sand settles out. (Ask your vet for more information if needed!) Psyllium products can be used to help minimize build up if your horse is at risk.

  • Post foaling – after foaling a mare’s uterus shrinks rapidly creating more space and lots of pressure changes in the abdomen, this could allow for gut displacement. Abdominal pain could also indicate numerous other issues after foaling such as bleeding, infection etc. Monitoring closely and staying in touch with your vet during this time is important. A post foaling exam is a good idea as well for mare and foal.

  • Slow changes if making diet alterations – Making diet changes suddenly may be an insult to the gut and its flora, as it is adapted to the feed they most consume. Slow changes help the gastrointestinal tract adjust and prevent diarrhea, gas and other problems.

  • High volumes of grain and infrequent meals – this can lead to gas buildup, ulcers, changes to gut flora; all predisposing factors to colic.

  • Lack of an appropriate deworming protocol – discuss the best way to approach parasites with your vet. This is an ever-changing area given newest recommendations based on research and resistance to deworming products.

What is Colic Surgery?

Colic surgery is a serious undertaking as it comes with some risks but in some colic cases it is the only option to save a horse. Most colon displacements and torsions can lead to colic surgery being required.

This is only done with a certified equine surgeon, of which we are lucky to have that option in Manitoba with Dr. Chris Bell.

Horses need to be under full gas anesthetic (intubated and on a respirator as their size requires this) and it takes a large team of doctors (surgeon and anesthetist) and technicians, as well as specialized equipment to accomplish this. Complications after surgery are also a potential risk such as ileus (lack of gut motility) or adhesions.

Consider looking into health insurance for your horse as surgery is costly and can come at the most unexpected of times. Make sure the insurance is right for you and your horse, as there are multiple different types that may or may not cover colic surgeries.

Most important is to know your horse. Put your hands on them daily, or as often as possible, so that changes can be caught quickly. Especially in our Manitoba winters, a horse with long coat or who wears a blanket might lose body condition without us knowing unless we feel their ribs and muscles daily for change.  This not only catches changes but solidifies your bond with your horse. The history an owner provides us is as important as the exam itself and you as owners know your horses best when something just isn’t right!  An annual exam by your vet will catch things like oral issues or stool issues that might just prevent an emergency situation like colic down the road.

The take home message is ultimately good nutrition, good management and never ever hesitate to call your vet if you think there is something wrong with your horse. We are here to help at 204-275-2038!

Written by Dr. Heidi Bjornson
Learn more about Dr. Heidi Bjornson here.