What is colic?

Colic is a broad veterinary term used to describe any form of abdominal pain. Colic can be triggered by many different causes; most of these are gastrointestinal in nature but occasionally colic can be the result of urinary and reproductive problems and even some severe respiratory disease can present as colic.


Signs of Colic...

Knowing and recognising the signs of colic is very important for all horse owners as it will allow you to notice even subtle changes in your horse’s behaviour and allow us to attend to your horse as soon as possible. It must be remembered that no two colic episodes are alike and there is much variation in type, nature and severity of colic signs which can include any or all of the following:

  • Pawing at the ground
  • Flank watching
  • Kicking or biting at the belly
  • Repeated lying down
  • Rolling
  • Holding head in unusual position
  • Repeated curling back of upper lip
  • Sweating Stretching out as if to urinate
  • Dog sitting
  • Lying on back
  • Depression
  • Inappetence

Types of Colic...

The word ‘colic’ simply means ‘pain in the abdomen’. Although we tend to think of colic as a single condition, it is actually just a sign that something is wrong in the horse’s abdomen – most probably in its digestive tract. Almost every part of the horse’s digestive tract can be affected by colic and a number of different things can go wrong with each part of the system. This means that there are numerous different types of colic. 

What to do if your horse has colic...

  • Call your vet immediately – colic is a true veterinary emergency and time is of the utmost importance.
  • Place your horse in a small yard or a well bedded stable to allow for easy and close observation.
  • Remove all food from the stable until the vet arrives.
  • If your horse is rolling violently, try gently walking them or keeping them standing.
  • Violently rolling horses often hurt themselves so trying to prevent self-trauma is helpful but remember not to put yourself in harms’ way.

What to tell the vet…

On arrival your vet will probably ask you some of the following questions whilst he or she is observing your horse:

  • Any previous episodes of colic?
  • And how were they resolved?
  • How old is your horse?
  • How long has your horse been colicing for?
  • What signs has the horse been showing?
  • Has your horse passed any droppings?
  • When did your horse last eat/drink?
  • Any changes in management lately?
  • If your horse is a mare... is she in foal?
  • If she has recently foaled, how long ago was it?
  • What is your horses worming history?


After assessing all the different factors involved in your horse’s colic, your vet will decide on the appropriate course of treatment. This may include administration of fluids/electrolytes down a nasogastric tube plus or minus some form of a laxative if an impaction is suspected. Pain relief is one of the corner stones of colic therapy and your vet will decided what drug and how much is appropriate. Once pain relieving drugs are given, we want to see a good response and the disappearance of all colic signs. If colic signs recur, it is vital that you contact your veterinarian as a horse that is still painful despite pain relieving drugs may need to be referred to the hospital for further investigation and possible surgery.

Colic Surgery...

One of the main things that a first opinion veterinarian treating colic in the field needs to determine is whether the horse can be managed medically or does it require surgery. There are many different indications for surgery and your veterinarian will assess them during the colic investigation. It must be remembered that the vast majority of colics do not require surgery and respond well to medical treatment but if your vet does feel that your horse needs surgery, or at least requires further investigation at a referral hospital, time is of the essence. The decision to take your horse to surgery can often be very difficult and unfortunately, due to the nature of colic, a rapid decision is required. Many factors are involved in making this decision such as severity of the problem, likelihood of a success, expense etc but your veterinarian is well trained and will be able to help you make the right decision for the horse.

If you are concerned that your horse or pony may be showing signs of colic, please call immediately - 01572 722 647