What is colic? Horse tips for writers.

Tummy ache

You may have heard the term ‘colic’ used in relation to babies. Broadly it means the same thing in horses, but is a condition that must be taken very seriously, with around 5% of colics having the potential to be fatal.

I should know – I’ve lost three this way over the years.

Clayland's Rossini

Clayland’s Rossini

Potentially my best horse, he died aged ten, of colic.

Symptoms of colic

  • Sweating
  • Heavy/fast breathing
  • Raised pulse
  • General restlessness and depression
  • Looking around at the stomach
  • Kicking at the stomach
  • Frequent lying down and getting up again.
  • Lying down and rolling
  • Trembling
  • Pawing the ground
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive gut noise (spasmodic and gas colic)
  • Lack of gut noise (compaction and twisted gut)


About 70% of colics have no obvious cause. Possible factors may be:

  • Change in diet
  • Change in routine
  • Bad food
  • Poor dentition
  • Worms
  • Poisons (possibly from poisonous plants)
  • Ingestion of foreign bodies
  • Sudden diet change
  • Lack of water
  • Certain drugs
  • Worm treatments
  • Stress
  • Exercise
  • Travel
  • Infection

Types of colic

  1. Spasmodic – basically, ‘the runs’. For whatever reason, the gut operates too fast and shoots the food through without absorbing the water. Pain may come in waves. Usually not prolonged, about an hour before symptoms settle.
  2. Compaction – constipation, but may be serious in a horse due to the massive length of the gut.
  3. Gas colic – as it sounds.
  4. Twisted gut – more often than not, this is the killer. Horses have exceedingly long intestines which are only loosely held in place within the abdomen. As a result of muscle spasms (possibly from one of the above types of colic) or from rolling, a loop of gut may become displaced and twisted around or over another portion, cutting off the blood supply. As the gut dies pain becomes intense and untreated will lead to certain death. Treatment is usually surgical with only a small chance of recovery.
  5. Sand colic – quite rare, only seen where horses drink from water with sand suspended in it or graze on sandy soil, ingesting sand along with the grass – sand accumulates in the bottom of the stomach over time.


Obviously depends on the type to some extent. In the past, colicing horses would be walked to prevent them from lying down which could lead to a gut twist. Nowadays if the pain is not too severe guidance says it is ok to allow them to lie down and rest, provided they don’t roll.

Before modern drugs, a common treatment would be to stomach tube liquid paraffin, to lubricate any blockage and help it to pass. A ‘colic drench’ (paraffin oil and electrolytes) would be found in every stable yard, just in case. It was a common joke that it was called a ‘drench’ because you usually got drenched while trying to get it down your horse’s throat! The layman would simply lift the horse’s head, and put the neck of a glass bottle (wrapped in sacking or rags to stop it from shattering) into the horse’s mouth and tip the concoction down its throat. Of course the horse would not always be obliging, and there was also the danger (as with the inexperienced use of a stomach tube) that the mixture would end up in the lungs and the horse would drown.

Modern treatments for mild colic are usually injected painkillers and sometimes sedative to calm agitation and prevent the horse from injuring itself and/or its handlers – there is always potential with an animal this size that it can kill simply with its weight, if it throws itself on the ground on top of a person.

Intravenous fluids may be called for in more severe cases, as might surgery. There is a very small window of opportunity for surgical success, and a high price to be paid, successful or not. Euthanasia is often the kindest option in severe cases.


For their apparent solidity, horses are surprisingly fragile creatures, and their physical construction puts them at risk of many types of injury and illness. I will cover others in future posts – if you have any you’d like information on, just leave me a comment and I’ll get to it!



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