Horse Colic Causes: Understanding the Triggers of This Common Equine Condition

Colic in horses is a painful and potentially life-threatening condition that affects horses of all ages, breeds, and disciplines. Colic is a general term used to describe abdominal pain in horses, and it can be caused by a variety of factors, including diet, stress, and medical conditions. 

There are several types of colic, each with its own set of causes and symptoms. Some of the most common types of colic include impaction colic, gas colic, and displacement colic. Impaction colic occurs when a blockage forms in the horse’s intestines, while gas colic is caused by an accumulation of gas in the horse’s digestive tract. Displacement colic occurs when a portion of the horse’s intestine becomes displaced or twisted, causing a blockage in the digestive system. It is important for horse owners to be able to recognize the signs of colic and seek veterinary assistance immediately, as early intervention can greatly improve the horse’s chances of recovery.

Preventing colic is also an important part of horse care. By understanding the causes of colic and taking steps to minimize the risk factors, horse owners can help keep their horses healthy and free from this potentially deadly condition. In the following sections, we will explore the most common causes of colic in horses and provide tips on how to prevent this condition from occurring.

Understanding Horse Colic

Signs of Colic

The signs of colic in horses can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Some common signs of colic include:

  • Restlessness
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Rolling or lying down excessively
  • Sweating
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of bowel movements
  • Abnormal posture
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Abnormal breathing

It is important to note that not all horses will exhibit all of these signs, and some horses may show different signs of colic.


Diagnosing colic in horses can be challenging as the signs can be vague and non-specific. A veterinarian will often perform a physical examination and may also use diagnostic tools such as blood tests, ultrasounds, and X-rays to help determine the cause and severity of the colic.

Causes of Colic

The causes of colic in horses can be numerous and can include:

  • Changes in diet or feeding schedule
  • Dehydration
  • Parasites
  • Intestinal blockages
  • Twisted intestines
  • Stress
  • Dental problems
  • Infections

Prevention is key in avoiding colic in horses. Maintaining a consistent feeding schedule, providing access to clean water at all times, and regular deworming are all important preventative measures.

Common Causes of Horse Colic

Feed and Diet

One of the most common causes of colic in horses is related to their feed and diet. Horses that are fed a diet high in grains or that experience sudden changes in their diet are at a higher risk of developing colic. Feeding horses large amounts of forage or hay that is low in quality or moldy can also lead to colic.

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Parasites such as strongyles and tapeworms can cause colic in horses. These parasites can damage the intestinal lining, leading to inflammation and blockages. Regular deworming and fecal egg counts can help prevent parasitic infestations and reduce the risk of colic.

Stress and Management

Stressful situations such as transportation, changes in routine, or social stress can lead to colic in horses. Poor management practices such as inadequate water intake or lack of turnout can also contribute to colic.

Sand Ingestion

Horses that graze on sandy pastures or eat from feeders on the ground can ingest sand, which can accumulate in the intestine and cause blockages. Providing horses with hay feeders or feeding them from elevated feeders can help reduce the risk of sand ingestion.

Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction can occur when a portion of the intestine becomes twisted or displaced, blocking the flow of food and blood. This can cause severe pain and lead to tissue death if left untreated. Surgery may be necessary to correct an intestinal obstruction.

Infection and Dehydration

Infections such as enteritis or colitis can cause colic in horses. These conditions can cause inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining, leading to blockages and pain. Dehydration can also contribute to colic by reducing the motility of the intestine and causing impactions.

Identifying Signs of Horse Colic

Horse colic is a common and potentially life-threatening condition that can affect horses of all ages and breeds. It’s important for horse owners to be able to recognize the signs of colic so they can seek prompt veterinary care. Here are some common signs of horse colic:

  • Pain: May exhibit signs of pain such as looking at their sides, kicking at their abdomen, and stretching out as if to urinate.
  • Sweating: May sweat profusely, even in cool temperatures.
  • Rolling: May roll on the ground repeatedly, sometimes violently.
  • Lying down: May lie down more than usual or at unusual times.
  • Kicking and pawing: May kick or paw at their abdomen or the ground.
  • Depression: May appear depressed or lethargic.
  • Diarrhea: May have diarrhea or pass small, dry fecal balls.
  • Increased heart rate: May have an elevated heart rate.
  • Retching: In severe cases, May retch or attempt to vomit.

It’s important to note that not all horses with colic will exhibit all of these signs, and some horses may exhibit signs that are not listed here. Additionally, some horses may exhibit signs of colic that are not related to the gastrointestinal tract, such as respiratory distress or neurologic signs. If you suspect your horse may have colic, it’s important to contact your veterinarian immediately for an evaluation and appropriate treatment.

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Treatment Options for Horse Colic

When a horse is diagnosed with colic, the treatment options will depend on the severity and type of colic. In most cases, the horse will require some form of medical treatment, but only those with certain mechanical obstructions of the intestine will need surgery.

Medical Treatment

Medical treatment options for horse colic include:

  • Pain relief: Pain relief medication, such as bute, can be administered to help alleviate discomfort.
  • Fluid therapy: Fluids can be administered to help rehydrate the horse and prevent further complications.
  • Mineral oil: Mineral oil can be administered via a nasogastric tube to help lubricate the intestines and promote the passage of fecal matter.
  • Laxatives: Laxatives can be administered to help stimulate bowel movements and alleviate constipation.
  • Drugs: Drugs, such as Buscopan, can be administered to help alleviate muscle spasms in the intestines.


In more severe cases of colic, surgery may be required. During the surgery, the veterinarian will remove any obstructions or damaged areas of the intestine and repair any tears or ruptures.

Overall, the key to successfully treating horse colic is to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. With prompt and appropriate treatment, most cases of colic can be resolved without the need for surgery.

Preventive Measures

Preventing colic in horses is essential to ensure their health and well-being. Horse owners should take preventive measures to reduce the risk of colic. Here are some tips that can help prevent colic:


Establishing a consistent routine for feeding, exercise, and turnout can help prevent colic. Horses should be fed at the same time each day, and their feeding should be consistent in terms of the type and amount of feed they receive. Sudden changes in feed, such as switching from hay to grain, can cause colic. Therefore, any changes in feeding routine should be made gradually over several days.


Horses should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Dehydration can lead to colic, so it’s essential to ensure that horses are drinking enough water. Horse owners should monitor their horses’ water intake and encourage them to drink more if necessary.


Regular exercise is essential for maintaining a horse’s digestive health. Exercise helps to stimulate gut motility and prevent impactions. Horse owners should ensure that their horses get enough exercise, but they should also avoid over-exercising their horses, which can lead to exhaustion and dehydration.


Regular deworming is essential for preventing colic. Parasites can cause blockages in the digestive tract, leading to colic. Horse owners should work with their veterinarian to develop a deworming schedule that is appropriate for their horse’s age, health, and living conditions.

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Pasture Turnout

Pasture turnout is essential for maintaining a horse’s digestive health. Horses that are turned out to pasture for several hours each day have a lower risk of colic than horses that are kept in stalls all day. However, horse owners should ensure that their pastures are free of toxic plants and other hazards.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common causes of horse colic?

There are many potential causes of colic in horses. Some of the most common include impaction, which is when undigested feed or foreign objects block the intestines; gas colic, which is caused by an accumulation of gas in the intestines; and displacement, which is when the intestines move out of their normal position. Other causes can include parasites, dehydration, stress, and changes in diet.

How can you prevent colic in horses?

There are several steps that horse owners can take to help prevent colic in their horses. These include providing clean water at all times, feeding a balanced diet that is appropriate for the horse’s age and activity level, providing plenty of roughage, and avoiding sudden changes in diet or routine. Regular exercise and dental care can also help prevent colic.

What are the early signs of colic in horses?

The early signs of colic in horses can include restlessness, pawing at the ground, sweating, and decreased appetite. The horse may also appear to be in pain, with a tense or tucked-up abdomen. As the condition progresses, the horse may lie down and roll repeatedly, and may become lethargic or unresponsive.

What are some treatment options for horses with colic?

The specific treatment for colic in horses will depend on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. In some cases, the horse may simply need to be monitored and given supportive care, such as pain medication and fluids. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove an obstruction or repair damage to the intestines.

Can a horse survive colic?

Many horses are able to recover from colic with prompt and appropriate treatment. However, the outcome can depend on the underlying cause of the colic, as well as the horse’s age, overall health, and the severity of the condition. In some cases, colic can be fatal.

What are the potential dangers of horse colic?

Colic can be a serious and potentially life-threatening condition for horses. In addition to the risk of death, colic can cause significant pain and discomfort for the horse. It can also result in long-term health complications, such as colitis or laminitis. As such, it is important for horse owners to take steps to prevent and promptly address colic in their horses.

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