A horse suffering from colic can exhibit a varied range of signs.

  • Mild colic signs are subtle and include restlessness or dullness and stretching out, as if to urinate.
  • Flank watching and lip curling may also be observed.
  • As pain increases, the horse can start pawing the ground, pacing and may sweat and lie down or roll.
  • Severe colic can result in attempts to roll or thrash about, and the horse could suffer an injury, especially to the head. Horses with evidence of self-trauma from a recent colic, but who now appear to be calm but dull and depressed, should be viewed with caution. Gut rupture may relieve the extreme pain but cause endotoxaemia, resulting in shock.

Finding out what's wrong

The good news is the vast majority of colics are caused by intestinal cramps (spasmodic colic) or a build up of gas (tympanic colic) associated with a change in management or diet. Owners often observe waves of pain and some horses may improve with walking. It is recommended the horse is examined by a vet. Prompt assessment and treatment will reduce distress for the horse and will provide you with much needed reassurance. Occasionally, additional diagnostic techniques, such as a rectal examination, may be necessary to identify the cause of pain. Internal palpation may identify blockages (impactions), displaced and/or distended bowel. If gut contents stop moving due to a blockage, twist or cessation of peristalsis, it will back up into the stomach. As horses cannot vomit, the increase in stomach volume is very painful and can result in rupture. A tube may be passed up the nose and into the stomach to syphon off excess fluid to prevent this.


Most colic cases will resolve following one treatment, uually comprised of 'spasmolytic' and painkilling injections. Oral fluid therapy is essential for impaction colics. You may be advised to take your horse to a veterinary clinic for monitoring, further tests or treatment. This might not reflect the severity of the case but can speed up diagnosis or treatment of the underlying problem. Other treatments may be needed depending on the diagnosis made. Colic surgery as a treatment is relatively rare. However, provided your horse is seen promptly and referred to the appropriate facility in a timely manner, surgery often has good results. 

Enhance your skills

XL Equine is a group of independent equine veterinary practices who work together to share experience, knowledge and skills, to deliver the highest tandards of equine healthcare. Member practices have developed a series of EquineSkills workshops to provide up-to-date, practical healthcare training to horse owners. The workshops are endorsed by the Association of British Riding Schools. These practical training courses are led in a friendly and informal environment. Each one takes place in an interactive and engaging learning environment to ensure the attendees gain new, useable skills. EquineSkills workshops cater for all levels of horse ownership.

For more information or to book a course, visit: www.equineskills.co.uk