Colic: What Is It?

It's every horse-keeper's nightmare: You walk into the barn a few hours after feeding to do a night check. Instead of the nicker that usually greets you, your horse is pacing and stamping in his stall. You can tell he's uncomfortable, and your immediate fear is colic. What do you do? The most important thing is not to panic. Here are some things you should know to get a plan set up so you aren't at a loss if your horse becomes ill:

What Is Colic?

Colic is the most common veterinary equine emergency. It's a general term for pain arising anywhere in the abdomen. Types of colic include gas or "spasmodic" colic, obstructive colic (impactions, displacements or twists), overeating colic, and more rarely, worm-related colics. Organs in the abdomen, other than the stomach and intestines, also cause pain on rare occasions.

The severity of colic can range from simple gas and flatulence, to impaction of a segment of the large colon requiring only treatment with oil and Banamine®, to "rock hard" impactions requiring intense fluid therapy. Although most horses respond after the first veterinary visit, some will rapidly deteriorate. Here are several anatomical reasons as to why colic strikes equines:

How Do You Know Your Horse Has Colic?

Typical signs of early colic include restlessness and loss of appetite, says Dr. Mark Baus of Fairfield Equine Associates in Connecticut. "One sign that people sometimes overlook is a horse that isn't interested in his food. Often, that's the first indicator that something is wrong, especially if the horse doesn't have a fever."

Lying down at unusual times for the horse is another.

More active or advanced forms of colic may include pawing, looking at his sides, rolling or lifting his upper lip, kicking the belly, stretching, jerky switching of the tail, and frequent changes of position.

While each of these may be a normal activity individually, when they occur simultaneously, or when they are unusual for your horse, colic should be suspected. These signs often will erupt in "spasms," interspersed with quiet times. In severe cases, horses will get intensely restless, throw themselves down, roll, paw vigorously, assume unnatural positions, stretch for long periods, strain and even groan.

What To Do If You Think Your Horse Has Colic

A horse with colic can appear passive or extremely restless, stoic or distressful, easy to handle or outright dangerous. The difference is the level of pain and how the horse handles it.

Your early recognition of the signs can be lifesaving. When in doubt, call your veterinarian. They will be glad that you took the initiative and didn't wait.

For more information on colic, please see the article Colic – How You Deal with It.