Colic is the term used to describe abdominal pain associated with the digestive system in horses and ponies. It is quite common and varies from a condition that causes some pain but which can pass, to a case that needs medical management. In 5-10% of cases it causes a serious condition requiring surgical intervention. Most cases are successfully treated but some severe cases do end up causing the death of the horse.
What is colic in horses and what causes it?
Colic is quite common in horses sometimes the reasons it develops is the horses's lifestyle. Horses are designed to ‘trickle-feed’ eating throughout the day and moving as they do so. Today we often restrict their movement in a stable, feed less often and feed higher quality food which has a high carbohydrate content. This difference to their natural, historic feeding regime can cause stress on their system as they haven’t evolved and adapted to the change, physiologically. This stress can result in digestive problems called colic.
Colic can also be a bi-product of historic gut damage from parasites or previous surgery. It can also be caused by hard exercise after feeding, long distance travel, a sudden change in feeding regime or routine, a lack of fibre in the diet or lack of water.
Colic is classed as spasmodic colic, Impaction colic, sand colic or twisted gut.
Spasmodic colic is also called gas colic and is caused by a build up of wind in the gut due to excessive fermentation or a problem passing gas through the gut. It can be caused by a change in diet, too much starch rich food or a lack of roughage. Sometimes gut parasites are the cause. This type of colic is usually mild and can be sorted out with pain relief and anti-spasmodic medication.
Impaction colic is caused by a blockage in the gut. It can be treated with extra fluids, laxatives and pain relief. Occasionally it may require surgery and if left untreated an impacted gut will lead to the death of the horse.
Sand Colic is caused when a horse is kept on sandy soil or poor grazing and they eat sand or dirt. This can cause a blockage in the gut or it can irritate the gut lining causing diarrhoea. In extreme cases it can cause peritonitis through damage to the bowel wall.
Twisted gut looks like colic but is actually more serious where the gut twists back on itself restricting the blood flow to the gut wall. This is extremely painful and needs immediate surgery. It is often fatal.
How can you help prevent colic in horses?
Prevention is better than cure, and so taking a few careful precautions can reduce the chances of your horse developing this painful and distressing complaint.
- Make sure they always have access to a good fresh water supply and a high fibre diet. If hard feed is needed, feed in several small meals as a supplement to grazing or other high fibre foods such as hay.
- Make sure the high fibre food such as hay is available as often as possible and makes up 60% of their diet.
- Ensure the feed is not mouldy, as far as possible.
- Make any changes to diet slowly and gradually. Limit access to new lush pasture in the spring and summer. This is a change in diet that should be done gradually.
- Make sure their exercise is planned into a regular routine and don’t suddenly over-exert them. Give them a cooling off period after exercise.
- Check their teeth regularly as food not properly chewed can cause issues in their gut.
- Worm them regularly. Worms are often the cause of colic and this can be avoided.
- Make sure you have a daily routine that you stick to and make any changes gradually.
- Be vigilant, especially over horses with a history of colic.
What are the symptoms of colic?
Terrible pain in the horse’s stomach causes distress and obvious symptoms. Many horses will roll on the ground, paw or kick at their stomach, look at their flanks, lie down for long periods, get up and lie down repeatedly, curl their upper lip and back into a corner stand in a stretched position as if they are going to pass urine. Twisted gut causes extreme pain and the suffering horse may be difficult to calm or control.
If you think your horse is suffering with stomach pain call your vet immediately. While you wait for the vet there are a few things you can try to do to help your horse. If they are rolling make sure they are in a safe area like a deep bedded large stable or a ménage on a long leading rein to maintain some control and help decrease the risk of injury. Remove any buckets or other items in the stable and think about your own safety. Don’t re-enter the stable without vet support as your horse will not necessarily be aware of you and may hurt you.
It may be beneficial for you to walk your horse around slowly if the pain is not severe but ask your vet for advice and don’t try to do this if your horse wants to lie down. Don’t feed your horse and don’t be surprised if they don’t want to drink.
Ensure your vet can find you easily and that your horse transport is ready to go in case your horse needs to be taken to a clinic for treatment. Time is of the essence so be ready to move quickly if necessary. Whatever the cause it might help you to cope financially if you insure your horse. You might like to take a look at the information we've compiled explaining horse insurance options and providers to help you decide what would suit you and your horse.