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What Happens When a Horse Gets Colic?

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Though colic is a catchall term for equine gastrointestinal issues, the word strikes fear in horse owners. While many horses recover from mild cases, colic still kills many of its victims. Other animals recover only after costly emergency surgeries. If you suspect your horse has colic, contact your vet at once. It's always a red-alert equine emergency.

Equine Gastrointestinal System

Your horse's gastrointestinal tract consists of his esophagus, stomach, small intestine, cecum—a fermentation vat—large colon and small colon, all ending at the rectum. Horses don't have the ability to vomit. Overall, the average's horse's gastrointestinal system is about 100 feet long, if stretched out, according to the University of California–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Types of Colic

Colic isn't just one disease. Flatulent colic occurs when there's too much gas in the intestinal tract, while an impaction colic occurs when something the horse ate can't pass through his intestines. Gastrointestinal inflammation causes colic symptoms, as can ulceration of the GI tract. Broodmares might experience pregnancy and foaling-related colics. These types of colics can generally be treated with medication and fluids. If a horse suffers a displacement, or twisted gut, or an intusscusception, in which one part of his intestine telescopes into another, emergency surgery is necessary.


If your horse refuses to eat his normal feed, that's a clear sign that something's wrong. If he's been in a stall all day without passing manure, that's another red flag. Other symptoms of colic include pawing, lying down, violent rolling, looking at his sides, kicking at his abdomen, sweating, heavy breathing, straining to eliminate, abdominal distention and a general worried or pained expression.


Initially your vet will listen to your horse's gut via a stethoscope. A lack of gut sounds indicates little to no motility in the gastrointestinal tract. She'll observe your horse's symptoms and perform a rectal examination or place a stomach tube down your horse's throat. She'll likely administer painkillers, fluids and a muscle relaxant, then ask you to keep an eye on your horse for an hour or so and contact her. If the horse doesn't show some improvement, or symptoms continue to worsen, you might have to make a decision about taking your horse to a veterinary hospital for treatment, including surgery.


While there's no 100 percent, surefire way to prevent colic, there are measures you can take to reduce the incidence. Keep your horse on a veterinarian-recommended deworming and dental care program. Make any feeding changes gradually. Your horse should have constant access to grass or hay to keep his gut moving. Give him as much turnout time as possible.