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Colic in horses

Colic is a collective name for "pain in the stomach" in horses and can have several different causes. Here, Agria Vårdguide's experienced horse veterinarian Johanna Habbe explains how to spot signs of incipient intestinal disease.
Colic in horses

"A horse with suspected colic is ALWAYS an emergency case and a veterinarian should be contacted for assessment."

Symptoms of colic in horses

  • Loss of appetite
  • Scratches the ground with the front hooves
  • Looking at the belly
  • Behaving anxiously
  • Rolls, more or less violently
  • May develop a fever and begin to sweat
  • Breathing can be violently, with increased pulse and breathing rate

A horse severely affected by pain has swollen nostrils, sweats, throws itself and/or rolls intensively. Make sure you consider your own safety if your horse is in pain.

Always consult a vet

Always contact a vet in case of suspected colic, to discuss the best way to proceed with your particular horse. Many cases can be solved by a vet in the field, but sometimes animal hospital care is required. It's a good idea to prepare a transport.

How to make a simple assessment of whether it is colic

You can make a simple assessment yourself of whether it is colic and how serious it is, before contacting the vet.

  • Assess your horse's general condition
  • Listen to the abdomen
    You can hear the intestines best just in front of the groin on both sides. You can also hear them a little more than halfway up and a little more than halfway down on the side of the abdomen. You can hear best with a stethoscope, but it's also possible to listen by placing your ear against the abdominal wall. Normally it should sound a little like a thunderstorm from the belly, with various long and silent pauses in between. A horse with colic often has almost completely silent intestines.
  • Examine the mucous membranes
    You can assess the circulation by looking at a horse's oral mucous membranes, they should be light pink. If they are darker red, purple or very pale, the circulation is affected
  • Monitor the horse and record when it poops and drinks. Check the horse at least every 15 minutes.

Try a walk for mild cases

Is your horse is a little anxious, not sweaty, scratching their front hoof from time to time and maybe laying down a bit? Then you can often try going for a brisk walk together for 30 minutes. A bit of light exercise might be sufficient enough to get the intestinal motility going. If the symptoms do not disappear after the first exercise, or if they recur, contact your vet again.

Remove their food

If your horse shows symptoms of colic, all feed must be removed; both roughage and concentrated. Eating can make the problem worse.

What does the vet do?

When your vet comes out, they will examine your horse and check various parameters, such as circulation, intestinal motility, degree of pain and so on.

In addition to examination, a common measure is for your vet to carry out a check of the abdominal cavity via the rectum. This is called rectalising the horse and is done to examine how the intestines feel and if they are in the right place in the abdominal cavity.

In order to check if there is a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract, and if the stomach is overfilled, the horse is can be probed. This involves a tube is being brought down to the stomach via the nasal cavity, pharynx and oesophagus. Horses cannot vomit and should the stomach become overfilled, for example in the event of a blockage in the small intestine, the stomach may burst. It is therefore important to check for gastric overflow during probing.

During the initial treatment, your vet will usually give an analgesic and antispasmodic preparation. Depending on what the examination gives as a diagnosis, the further measures could be continued treatment in the stable with fluids, laxatives and exercise of a constipated horse. If your horse has a suspected malposition of their intestine, your horse could also be referred for surgery.

What you can do whilst you wait for the vet

  • Prepare hot water and a towel/paper that your vet can use to wash himself off.
  • During rectalisation, your vet needs a protected place to stand, if there is access to an insemination spigot or similar, this should preferably be ready for use.
  • When probing, clean buckets and a pallet may be needed, please have these ready.

How to prevent colic

  • Daily outings
  • Regular exercise for your horse
  • A balanced feed state, based on roughage. Large quantities of concentrates increase the risk of colic.
  • Free access to clean water around the clock, even in the yard when it's cold. Many winter constipations are caused by the horses drinking too little.
  • Regular stool sampling and adapted deworming depending on test results, to reduce the risk of colic caused by parasites.
  • Feed your horse smaller portions on several occasions or let your horse have free access to roughage. Four to six feedings per day may be adequate if it's not possible to provide free access. Straw can be offered as a supplement to hay/hay silage, to be able to give a bigger boost.
  • Always introduce new feed gradually over a couple of weeks.
    If your horse walks in paddocks with sand or sandy soil - make sure you feed in feed fences to reduce the risk of sand colic.

Causes of colic

There are many causes of colic. As a rule, the problem is in the gastrointestinal tract, but also uterine inversion in a pregnant mare or a ruptured bladder in a newborn foal gives rise to colic symptoms.

A horse's gastrointestinal tract has a long and easily movable intestine, up to 30 meters long. This provides the conditions for intestinal twists and other malpositions. The small intestine can also get stuck in various slit formations inside the abdominal cavity, for example in the opening down to the scrotum with a pinched scrotal hernia as a result.

A horse's digestive tract is designed to utilise roughage. The framework of the feed state must therefore be based on grass, hay, straw and minerals. In its natural state, a horse is used to eating for a large part of the day. If you deviate and feed occasionally, or give feed that deviates from what is natural, disturbances in the microorganism flora in the large intestine easily occur.

Colic problems such as gas colic, large intestinal constipation and  diarrhoea can occur. Daily outings in the paddock or other types of exercise are not only important to avoid constipation, but also necessary to fulfil the horse's natural need to move.

A common cause of colic is also intestinal parasites. Foals can have such a massive invasion of roundworms that constipation occurs in the small intestine. Tapeworm infestation can result in blockage of the opening between the small intestine and cecum. The larvae of the bloodworm cause blood clots in the blood vessels of the intestine, which causes disturbances in the normal bowel movements.


Depending on what caused the colic, different types of aftercare may be needed. Follow the advice given by your attending vet.

In general, the same recommendations apply as for preventing colic, which are mentioned earlier in this article. If your horse has been without feed due to colic for a little while, be sure to increase the feed intake carefully.

For a horse that has been admitted to an animal hospital and has been starving for a little longer, an escalation of 20-25 percent of the roughage in the horse's feed state per day may be appropriate. For example, around 2 kilos of hay per day for a horse weighing 500 kilos.

If your horse has been without food for less time, the increase can happen faster. The most important thing is that your horse eats roughage, so start by stepping up the feed. Concentrated feed can only be introduced when your horse is eating roughage in a normal amount.

Approved by Johanna Habbe, Veterinary Advisor

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