Equine Colic is a distressing condition for both horse and owner, which requires rapid veterinary attention. This is because many of the conditions, which cause colic become life threatening in a relatively short period of time. 

Colic means pain in the abdomen, and is usually as a result of an intestinal problem, but it can also be caused by internal hemorrhage, uterine pain or urinary dysfunction. Horses do not tend to tolerate abdominal pain very well, and display their discomfort in a very violent and distressing manner. The symptoms to look out for are:

  • Pawing at the ground with front feet
  • Sweating up
  • Repeatedly getting up and lying down
  • Rolling, especially violent rolling
  • Looking at the flanks, or kicking at the belly
  • Tucked up abdomen, grinding the teeth
  • And in severe cases a recumbent horse who is unable to rise.

If you observe the above symptoms you should call your equine veterinary surgeon and arrange for him/her to attend as soon as is possible. 

Until the vet arrives it is useful to slowly walk your horse continuously, as this often helps to settle the pain slightly. More importantly however, it avoids further injury by preventing the self-trauma inflected when violently rolling. If horses' intestines are distended with gas and air, during colic, rolling may in fact lead to displacement of the intestines and the formation of an entrapment or a twist within the loops of intestine. This is a very serious sequel as the blood supply may become obstructed to the intestinal loop and lead to the death of this portion. Without rapid surgical intervention these conditions are unfortunately often fatal. Therefore, where it is safely possible- try to prevent a horse with colic rolling by walking slowly in hand.

When the vet arrives he or she will assess 4 main criteria:

  1. Heart rate & rhythm - which is a good indication of how serious the colic is.
  2. Circulation:
    1. Hydration
    2. Pulse strength
    3. Colour of the gums and capillary refill time
  3. Degree of pain/ discomfort
  4. Bowels:
    1. Auscultation with stethoscope e.g.- spasmodic colic’s-noisy, twisted gut-silent.
    2. Internal Rectal examination- may give exact diagnosis of type of colic
    3. Passing a stomach tube- see if increase in stomach pressure or reflux.

Other information such as the duration of symptoms, bowel movements, worming history and in mares- reproductive history, will be needed. Fortunately, the vast majority (93%) of colic episodes in horses are relatively easily resolved.

Most are as a result of SPASMOTIC PAIN or distended loops of intestine with no loss of blood supply. After examination and assessment these are usually treated by an intravenous anti-spasmodic pain relieving injection.

The next most common cause is IMPACTION OF THE LARGE INTESTINE by dry hay or straw. These are usually treated with liquid paraffin by stomach tube, to lubricate the intestine and break up the blockage.

We advise that you check on the patient regularly over the next few hours to ensure that there is no deterioration and that your horse is now more settled. We often return after 1-2 hours to check that the 4 main criteria are improving.
The main decision we, as veterinary surgeons, have to make when examining and assessing a horse with colic is- Does this horse require surgery, or can we treat it medically?

Usually this decision can be reached easily, but not all cases are clear-cut and we may need to re-assess the patients' response to initial treatment 1-2 hours later, to reach a final conclusion.