What Causes Colic In Horses?

If you suspect that your horse is unwell, it can be a worrying time, especially if they are showing signs of colic. To put it simply, colic is a general term used to describe a horse who is suffering from abdominal pain.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

Whilst it may be from something as simple as indigestion, the horse could also be suffering from much worse causes such as a twisted gut.

The best thing any horse owner can do is to try and prevent colic. Whilst that does not mean that they will never suffer from it, any steps taken will help to heavily reduce their likelihood of it happening.

Why Colic Happens In Horses

Colic is a lot more common in horses than you might think, and there are a couple of things that could be the reason why that is so. Such as how a horse’s eating and grazing habits have changed dramatically since their ancestors were alive. 

Nature intended horses to constantly be on the move, grazing as they go along. In this perfect world, horses would feed off low-energy food in large quantities all day in a process known as ‘trickle feeding’. 

Unfortunately, many horses today spend their time eating a type of hard feed alongside a particular amount of hay, and then left in a stable for hours without exercise and food to eat.

Even those who do get to spend time grazing are different to what once was, or how wild horses live. Sadly, a horse’s digestive system has not evolved to keep up with the changes, therefore are more susceptible to colic.

Because a horse cannot vomit, they are also unable to get rid of food that cannot be digested, as well as toxins. The gut has an absorptive area that is rather large, and due to horses being herbivores, and a slower digestion rate, toxins may get absorbed into their body quickly. 

First Signs Of Colic

All horses are different, but these are some of the signs they might be showing alongside other behaviour:

  • Sweating
  • An increase in their breathing rate
  • Pulse rate is elevated
  • Restlessness
  • Pawing at nothing on the ground
  • Rolling, or at least trying to roll
  • Stretching, perhaps it looks like they are urinating
  • Kicking to their own stomach
  • Lying down and getting back up, and then repeating it
  • Lying down more
  • A poor appetite
What Causes Colic in Horses?

Risks Of Suffering From Colic

There are many risks that are associated with the potential of suffering from colic, so it is always best to try and avoid such situations.

If the pasture has become over-grazed or is in generally poor condition, such as the soil, then this could be a factor in causing colic in your horse. Also, a change in routine, travelling long distances and even exercising whilst being unfit or after eating food can all bring on colic.

If their feeding routine is quite poor, then this can cause colic due to not having enough fiber and water, a change in diet that happens suddenly, food that is soiled or even the wrong amount of food. 

Lastly, there are issues with the body that may bring on a bout of colic such as if they have tooth problems. This is the first area of their digestive system, just like us humans. Once the teeth are affected, it can stop a horse from eating properly.

If they have worms or even some sort of gut damage due to surgery, then this can all bring on colic. 

How To Prevent Colic

Whilst aiming to prevent colic is always the best solution, it cannot eradicate the possibility altogether, however it is a great start. There are many ways to do this, which you should be doing anyway, but let us look at them in more detail.

What Causes Colic in Horses?


A horse needs a constant supply of fresh water to make sure that they are staying hydrated and that their digestive system is working properly. 

Their diet should be high in fiber, with 60 percent of that coming from hay or another alternative. It needs to be good quality, as does all their food, to ensure there is no mold or hazards.

Frequent but small meals are best, with plenty of pasture grazing. Keep hard feed as a supplement part of their diet only.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

Pasture Grass

Whilst it is great to have your horse spend time nuzzling at grass, you do not want the area to become overgrazed.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you have rich grass coming through, the best thing to do is to introduce it to them gradually as it should be seen as a change to their current diet.

Make sure the pasture is not heavily sanded too, as this is generally not good for them.

What Causes Colic in Horses?


A horse needs to stay fit and well, and to do this, they must have regular exercise. Whilst a routine is good, make sure your horse is not over-exercised and becomes tired. Also, never do sudden bursts of heavy exercise, especially if it is for long periods of time and they are not used to it.

Make sure they are spending plenty of time in the paddock, but if you are making any big changes to their exercise, introduce it to them slowly. 

Also, a horse will need a cooling-off period after exercise, so give them time to do this.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

Routine Check-Ups

A horse’s lifestyle is a big factor when it comes to preventing colic. A good way to keep them healthy is by making sure they have regular dental checks, and this means not missing them or forgetting to schedule it in.

If a horse is not chewing food well, then this can increase the risk of a blockage forming in their intestine, which ultimately will lead to pain.

Also, make sure that they get checked for worms regularly too, and listen to any date recommendations given by the vet.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

Treatment Of Colic

If a horse has a mild case of colic, then a vet may administer drugs which will relieve pain, as well as relax the horse – which will help stop those symptoms as listed above.

Once this has happened, you will need to keep in touch with the vet and inform them if anything changes, especially if you are worried.

If the horse does not respond to the treatment, and the case is more serious, then surgery may be suggested. 

If You Think Your Horse Has Colic

If you suspect that your horse is suffering from colic, then always treat it as an emergency, rather than waiting for it to ‘pass’. This means you should call for a vet as soon as you realize something is not right.

You should be keeping a note of your horse’s regular pulse rate and temperature so it is easier to spot any abnormalities. Also, you will be able to tell if any of the horse’s behaviour seems out of character.

So, what do you do if you think your horse is suffering from colic?

  • Make sure your horse is in a safe environment where they cannot accidentally hurt themselves, such as if they are rolling around or repeatedly lying down.
  • Remove any of the horse’s feed and hay to avoid more digestion issues.
  • If you think the symptoms are mild, walking around may help relieve some of the pain, but stay near the stable and do not venture out.
  • If your horse seems anxious, make sure you keep watch, but stay out of their way, it could make it worse.

Final Words

Understanding how colic affects a horse can help you to prevent it from happening in the first place. Whilst it is common in today’s management of horses to suffer from colic, it can be prevented if you keep your horse healthy, exercised and routinely checked.

Catherine McDowl
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