Colic: Signs and What To Do

No horse owner wants to deal with a horse that has colic, but it will invariably happen to us all if we’re around horses long enough! Colic is one of the most serious health issues that can happen in horses and is life threatening! Treatment can be very expensive if the horse requires additional care off the farm at an equine veterinary clinic. This sometimes includes IV fluid therapy and an ICU stay at an equine vet clinic or surgery to resolve a displacement, impaction or deal with necrotic intestines, etc.

Catching colic early and dealing with it aggressively through veterinarian treatment can make a significant difference in how the horse recovers! Being prepared and knowing how to handle a colic situation is essential.

Generally, the word colic refers to abdominal pain. When dealing with horses, it’s vital to remember that each individual will react differently and may not show the same signs in a subsequent episode of colic.

Signs of Colic

  • Pawing
  • Rolling
  • Increased respiration rate
  • Refusing hay, grain, grass
  • Sweating
  • Kicking/biting or looking at sides
  • Stretching out
  • Laying down (may vary from laying quietly to thrashing)
  • Flehmen (flipping top lip up)
  • Subtle signs: reluctance to move, standing up against a wall, slightly “off” or listless behavior, playing in water bucket

Any time there is a sign of colic, it is critically important to take the horse’s vitals, look at their surroundings for signs of pawing, lying down, etc. and generally get a big picture look at the situation.  Once the vitals have been taken, and it is determined that they correlate with the horse’s clinic signs of colic, call the vet!  They will appreciate an accurate account of vitals and description of what the horse is doing–that information will help them determine if they need to drop what they’re doing and rush to your horse, or if they have a bit of time to get there.  It is never a good idea to give Banamine or any other pain/other medication until the veterinarian has seen the horse UNLESS instructed by the veterinarian over the phone to do so.


Normal Resting Heart Rate:  24-44 beats per minute

Normal Resting Respiration Rate:  10-24 breaths per minute

Normal Temperature:  99-101 degrees F

*For more on taking vitals, which all horse owners should know how to do in a NON-EMERGENCY situation, click here!

While you are waiting on the vet to arrive, the horse can be hand walked, should not be allowed to roll or thrash about on the ground and kept as quiet as possible.  If the horse is lying down, remains quiet and does NOT roll, it is ok to watch them very closely and let them just rest.  There are some massage, T-Touch and acupressure protocols for colic in horses. These can be performed IF THE VETERINARIAN IS ON THE WAY!  

When the vet arrives, they will re-take all the vitals and complete a thorough exam on the horse.  Most vets will probably sedate the horse and then pass a nasogastric tube to check aid3331761-900px-Recognize-and-Treat-Colic-in-Horses-Step-5for reflux (to make sure the feed matter is not blocked in the stomach as horses cannot vomit).  They will leave the tube in place, and usually also do a rectal exam looking for signs of gas distention, impaction or displacement. Once this part of the exam has been completed, a game plan will be established. Often they will give oral fluids and electrolytes through the NG tube and may also give some other medications.

Any horse that is being treated from colic should not be allowed to eat for a veterinarian-prescribed amount of time and should be watched very closely for several hours post-treatment. Often, when the medications and sedation wear off, the horse will remain painful and might require additional treatment.

There are many causes of colic,  but it’s critically important for horses to have access to fresh, clean (thawed) water at all times to maintain proper hydration. Make new feed changes slowly so as not to disrupt the good gut flora that the hind gut fermenting horse depends on to keep digestion moving along in their digestive tract.  Know what is normal for your horse and know what your horse’s normal vitals are, as well as how to take them confidently.  These few things can help make a colic situation less scary and hopefully help with a quick recovery!