Colic; what does it mean, and what can you do about it?

If you have a horse you have probably heard about colic. If you haven’t, you have come to the right place because you need to hear about it!

Colic simply put means “abdominal pain”. Now I remember back to vet school and having a discussion with classmates and we all thought we were so smart having heard of, or experienced colic before. We were quickly corrected in that moment. You see, we all thought we knew that colic ALWAYS had to do with the gastrointestinal system (or usually even more specifically the intestines).

In this sense most of you are WAY smarter that I was entering vet school. I have had several people define colic as “abdominal pain” to me when they are describing their horse’s behavior / symptoms. That is AWESOME. Now, lets talk about what that could include for just a minute…

Gastrointestinal system (liver?, omentum?, stomach, small intestines, large colon, cecum, small colon, rectum…)

Genito-urinary system (kidneys, ureters, bladder, +/- urethra, uterus, ovaries, +/- prostate and reproductive glands, +/- testicles…)

Peritoneum (lining of the abdomen)

Abdominal muscles?


Okay, I think you get the idea. There are A LOT of “things” in the abdomen. So, there are a lot of areas, that if there is disease or dysfunction, could cause “colic”.

brown horse on grass field

How do we “know” it is colic?

Great question! The technical answer is that we don’t always “know” that it IS colic, until we have ruled other processes out. Those circumstances are not the norm however. The typical signs that a horse is colicking include:

  • Not wanting to eat
  • Laying down
  • Rolling
  • Pawing
  • Kicking at their abdomen
  • Looking or even biting at their abdomen

What can we do once we are fairly certain our horse is colicking?

First and foremost, please please please CALL YOUR VETERINARIAN. Just because you call them, does not mean that they have to come out. What it does mean, is that you have put them on notice and effectively allowed for them to plan in case you do need them. This way they can inform you if they will be able to come or if you need to find a different veterinarian to come out. They are people and they have lives too!

Okay moving on…

You are going to want to remove all food from your horse’s pen so they cannot eat any more until you are able to get a diagnosis/ your horse is recovered. Maybe do this while you are calling your veterinarian… Horses will often still eat, even if not drinking, or if they are still suffering from some sort of colic. This is not usually the case with water. They often stop drinking first and then also start drinking again after they want food. This leads to feed impactions if their water balance is out of whack. We don’t need that! But it may already be the problem…

You should also separate this horse from any other horses. This way you can really monitor their inputs (water only) and outputs (urination and defecation). This information is vital in knowing how your horse is doing.

white horse on body of mountain

What will your veterinarian want to know?

  • What is the horse doing that makes you think they are colicking?
  • Is your horse wanting to eat?
  • When did they last eat?
  • Are they drinking?
  • How much have they drank(ish) in the last 12-24 hours?
  • Are they urinating?
  • Are they passing manure?
  • What were the qualities of their last urination and defecation? (color/texture/dry/moist/odor/quantity/volume compared to their “normal”)
  • Does this horse have a history of colic? What was the cause?
  • Have you given the horse anything? How much and by what route (IV/by mouth?/ IM). Did it help at all?
  • Have you taken the horse’s temperature?
  • Have their been any changes in the horse’s diet or activities?
  • What age breed and gender is your horse? Yes, it matters.
  • When were their teeth done last?
  • What color are their mucus membranes?
  • Do you feed psyllium? When was the last time you fed it?

I have to make a couple little plugs here…

  1. By asking you these questions were are not saying that you don’t know what you are talking about, we are simply trying to find out how severe the situation is and guage urgency and get some clues as to what we might be dealing with so we can best direct you and prepare ourselves.
  2. I cannot stress this enough —

Okie dokie….. moving right along

grayscale photo of horse

What can you do for colic at home?

Once you have spoken with your veterinarian they might make a couple of recommendations –

Please follow their recommendations!

Likely they will either be wanting to head your way immediately (or have your haul in) – or they will ask if you have bute or banamine on hand to administer. It is important to get your horse’s temperature BEFORE administration of either of these anti-inflammatories. You can use a simple digital thermometer you might get from the drug store for this. A horse’s rectal temperature should be between 98.5 F and 101.5 F. It would also be great if you get get a heart rate (heart beat in 1 minute) and respiratory rate (breaths in 1 minute) before administering anti-inflammatories.

Please also follow the dosing recommended by your veterinarian. If your horse did not improve at that dose it is not because they need more, it’s likely because they are in more pain/ discomfort than what that medication can help them with. This is important information for your veterinarian. Giving too much of a medication, especially to an already compromised horse, can lead to kidney disease, colitis or stomach ulcers! You don’t want to compound the issues you are dealing with!

Next you might want to administer Zesterra or Colic Eaze to see if you can assist in alleviating symptoms of colic if gas or ulcers are part of the problem.

To walk or not to walk?

I do usually recommend walking a colicky horse to encourage gut motility, and to keep a horse distracted while we wait for medications to take effect. Now when I say walking, I mean walk for 5-10 minutes and then stop and see how the horse is doing. Do NOT walk a 25 year old horse for 8 hours straight, please! There is a such thing as too much walking, so please do this in moderation and stop frequently to see how the horse is doing. If the horse goes to roll, by all means please continue walking. But if this is the case, especially after 45 minutes to an hour (and ESPECIALLY after medication), your veterinarian should be on their way.

lady walking her horse with text from blog - steps for success

Some other colic “home” remedies…these are in addition to whatever your veterinarian recommends

You can make your horse a pot of chamomile or peppermint tea…please give chilled/ cooled tea 60ml every couple of hours

Apply a couple of drops of peppermint essential oils to your horse’s naval and rub gently

Administer salt or electrolytes if you have them to encourage drinking

You may administer 3-6 gas X depending on your horse’s size and especially if you feel it may be gas related


Try to tube your horse – especially not with mineral oil! Do not syringe and try to force your horse to drink. This is not even close to an effective way to get your horse hydrated and there is a HUGE risk for aspiration. If your horse aspirates mineral oil it is basically a death sentence. So please just don’t.

Do not perform an enema on your horse. The rectum of the horse tears SUPER easily. If you accidentally tear that tissue they are susceptible to huge amounts of blood loss, fecal contamination of their abdomen and eventually death.

If your veterinarian does have to come out…what will they do?

Physical exam – temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, mucous membranes, gut sounds, palpation and observation

Rectal exam – situation depending – is everything where it is supposed to be, and if there anything “extra” like a fecal impaction or stone

Nasogastric intubation (tubing) – situation depending – diagnostic first AND then therapeutic (depending on the type of colic)

Blood tests (Lactate/ SAA) – situation depending – any anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism occurring, twists or strangulating colics, or are there any infections leading the horse to this point

Abdominocentesis – situation depending – what does the belly fluid look like (how bad is the colic)

Administer pain medication – if this hasn’t been done and is still warranted

Administer anti-spasmodic – depending on the cause of the colic

Administer fluids – depending on exam findings

Surgery??? Sometimes

I hope this helps!! Comment below with questions and I will try my best to answer them!

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