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What is colic?

Colic is any sort of abdominal pain in the horse, or what we might call stomach ache in people. Colic is not always serious and it is not always pain to do with the intestine. It can also be caused by pain from other things within the abdomen such as the liver or ovaries. When a horse is colicky it will probably show signs such as pawing with its front legs, kicking up with its back legs, turning to look at its flanks, lying down, rolling, and sweating. Other things can also mimic colic and the most common are laminitis or tying up. In both these conditions the horse will also be reluctant to move.

My horse has colic. Is that serious?

90% of colic is benign and reversible. That is, it is not caused by something life threatening and will settle of its own accord. However about 10% of colic is caused by something more serious and needs urgent veterinary attention. Where it is more serious then it is important not to leave it untreated... the longer it goes on the more serious it becomes. Therefore colic should always be treated as a veterinary emergency. If you are unsure of the severity of the problem and you are a client of this practice then please don't hesitate to phone us for advice.

What makes a horse colicky?

There are several reasons for intestinal pain. Abnormal motility of the intestine is probably the most common. This results in spasm of the muscles of the intestine or abnormal contractions which become painful. Such colic is often associated with a sudden change in diet or management although some horses are more prone to this type of colic.

Types of gut motility
Types of gut motility

Another cause of colic is the intestine becoming distended and stretched. If a horse eats a large volume of fibrous feed such as straw and then stands in his box all day then he may develop an impaction. This will stretch the wall of the intestine, causing colic.

Gut distension
Gut distension

The same sort of distension may also happen when a horse develops a great deal of gas in the intestines. This may also be related to standing in the box all day but is primarily caused by rapidly fermenting food such as a flush of new grass or an oversized hard feed. Most of the serious forms of colic are caused by the horse developing either a twist in the intestine or some other form of malpositioning which causes the blood supply to be obstructed. Where this happens the affected piece of intestine will die off rapidly unless the intestine is untwisted or repositioned. This requires urgent surgery. The success of surgery depends mainly on how quickly the horse is sent to a hospital.

Twisted Intestines
Twisted Intestines
Why does a horse get colic?

The three main causes of colic (spasmodic, impaction, gassy) are generally related to feed and management. A rich diet fed infrequently or a sudden change to rich grass are the most common causes of gassy or spasmodic colic. Impactions are usually caused by horses standing in and eating their bedding. What is less predictable is the timing of more severe colic such as a twisted intestine (torsion or volvulus). These usually happen "out of the blue" and there is not usually a predisposing cause. It used to be thought that the horse rolling causes the intestine to twist but that is now known to be false. The twisted intestine causes the horse to roll!

How can I stop my horse getting colic?

Horses should avoid eating over rich diets, standing in all day or eating their straw bed. In general horses eating plenty of grass (but not lush) or hay and getting lots of turn-out are less likely to get colic than those kept stabled and given hard feed. Unfortunately it is the most serious forms of colic that are the least preventable.

My horse has colic but is passing droppings. Doesn't that mean it is not serious?

No, it is a myth that just because a horse is passing droppings the colic cannot be serious.

Is colic surgery worthwhile?

Colic surgery is expensive but often very worthwhile in appropriate cases. Unlike orthopaedic surgery, for instance, the horse has a high chance of returning to normal work if the surgery goes well. The high potential cost is a good reason to ensure your horse is insured for veterinary fees.

Colic surgery being performed at the Liphook Equine Hospital
Colic surgery being performed at the Liphook Equine Hospital
My horse has got colic what should I do?
  1. Make sure it is not in a place where it will injure itself if it rolls. A large, soft sand school is ideal if the horse is determined to roll.
  2. Watch out for your own safety. A thrashing colicky horse can be dangerous and will have little regard for your safety. You are no use to your horse if you get injured!
  3. Remove all feed
  4. If you are a client of this practice then phone us for advice. You may need a visit.
  5. Walking the horse may take its mind off the colic and help move around any trapped gas.

Finally..... If you put your horse somewhere soft to roll we don't suggest you use the living room carpet, like this pony! Note the Christmas tree by the window...... and yes it was passing droppings!

Christmas Colic
Christmas Colic


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Stable Close Equine Ltd is registered in England & Wales at Bridgets Farm, Martyr Worthy, Hampshire. SO21 1AR.
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