How To Manage Colic in Horses

Colic is one of the most common equine health issue that requires emergency treatment. In fact, colic remains to be the leading medical cause of death in horses.

Colic in horses is a term used to describe abdominal pain or discomfort. Whether it’s a mild or severe case of colic, you can take the best care of your horse with the right action plan. We have compiled everything you need, from types and signs of colic to how to manage colic in horses and keys to boosting equine gut health.

Common Types of Colic in Horses

Colic is a broad term that refers to several underlying conditions. The potential of the condition can be anywhere from mild to life-threatening, depending on the type and the overall health of the horse. To manage colic in horses, it is crucial to identify the colic type. The most common types of colic are listed below.

Spasmodic colic

Spasms in the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract cause this type of colic in horses. The horse may exhibit signs of abdominal pain and discomfort, such as rolling, kicking at the belly, and sweating. One of the most common forms of equine colic but is usually temporary and easily treated.

Impaction colic

This type of colic occurs when a horse overeats roughage or doesn't drink enough water, leading to a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract. The horse may have a decreased appetite, a swollen belly, and signs of abdominal pain.

Strangulation colic

This is a severe category of colic caused by a twist in the horse's intestine cutting off blood flow to that region and will typically require surgery. Signs of this type of colic may include severe abdominal pain, rolling, sweating, and a distended belly.

Gas colic

Gas colic in horses refers to a type of colic caused by an accumulation of gas in the horse's gastrointestinal tract. This can be caused by a change in diet, low roughage consumption, parasites or administration of dewormer. The horse may exhibit signs of abdominal discomforts, such as rolling, kicking at the belly, and sweating.

Signs of Colic To Look For In Your Horse

Irrespective of the myriad colic types, the signs of colic in horses remain to be non-specific. While searching for the answer to ‘How to manage colic in horses,’ it’s essential to keep an eye out for the symptoms. The common signs that horse owners must be aware of include the following-

  • Pawing
  • Often looking at their side
  • Lying down or rolling
  • Kicking or biting their flank or belly
  • Not eating or drinking water
  • Off-colored mucous membranes
  • Change in drinking behavior
  • Lack of bowel movements
  • Tacky gums
  • Sweating
  • Depression
  • Heart rate over 45-50 beats/minute

How to Manage Colic in Horses - Detailed Overview

Equine colic can be unpredictable in nature therefore challenging to deal with. Below is a list of essential steps to help better manage your horse if you suspect they are colicing.

Check Your Horse’s Vital Signs

The first step in managing colic in horses involves checking your horse’s vital signs, such as heart rate and temperature.

Record other clinical signs like pawing, rolling or stretching. It gives an idea about the type of colic and can be used to monitor the signs over a period of time. You can pass this information on to the veterinarian to aid their assessment.

Check the Feces

Examining the horse's feces (or absence) can provide important information for the vet to diagnose the cause of abdominal pain.

Walk Your Horse

Walking can help significantly in treating gas colic. It allows better movement of the gas through the horse’s gut tract and provides pain relief.

It is an excellent approach to prevent injuries caused by rolling. Do not walk the horse to the scope of exhaustion, as the horse must remain hydrated with energy levels up.

Call Your Veterinarian

Calling your veterinarian immediately is essential. The wait-and-see approach is far from good when battling with the question ‘How to manage colic in horses.’

By calling your vet, you can describe the horse's symptoms, and the vet can decide if an immediate visit is necessary or if the owner should keep an eye on the horse and call back if the situation worsens.

Monitor Your Horse

While symptoms persist, make sure to check on your horse every 15-20 minutes, as colic can worsen quickly. It's crucial to monitor the horse closely for any changes in condition.

Withhold Access to Water

It is essential to withhold water from the horse until the vet can examine it and pass a stomach tube. If the horse's stomach is swollen, giving it water could cause it to rupture.

Avoid feeding

Remove any access to the feeding material, be it hay or grain. In case the pasture is lush green, try to put the horse in a yard that has limited access. It needs to be done until the horse has been seen by a veterinarian or the symptoms subside.

Don’t Medicate Without Your Veterinarian’s Approval

Pain medications tend to mask colic symptoms, making it more difficult for your vet to get a correct diagnosis. Never treat your horse without the approval of your veterinarian.

Keep Horse in a Secure Area

Keep your horse secure in a protected space, like a little paddock or spacious stall, to avoid entrapment or accidental collisions.

For the safety of the foal, it is recommended to separate a mare and her foal. If feasible, place the foal where the mare can still keep an eye on it.

Consider transportation

Plan to ensure smooth and safe transport of your horse to the clinic for necessary monitoring or surgery.

Keys to Boosting Equine Gut Health

A healthy gut can help reduce the risk of colic to a great extent. Consider prebiotics, probiotics, enzymes and yeast culture to help support a healthy GI tract, to assist with nutrient absorption and digestion of feedstuffs. Research shows the following ingredients may lend support to healthy digestive function:

Probiotics: help to replenish good bacteria in the gut

Prebiotics: food for the good bacteria and also help to inhibit absorption of harmful bacteria in the hindgut.

Yeast: Offsets negative impact of high starch diets and supports fiber digestion in the hindgut.

Enzymes: help to increase the proper digestion of sugars and starches in the foregut.

Always consult with your veterinarian to establish an optimal nutrition plan for your horse. Review and update these plans annually to account for changes in exercise, nutrition, health, and other factors that may play a role in overall health and performance.