Colic in horses

4 min read

Colic in horses

Horse colic is a broad veterinary term used to describe a symptom of abdominal pain.

It can affect any horse, at any time, for a multitude of reasons, in fact there are over 70 different types of intestinal problems that cause colic symptoms, which range from mild to severe.

Whilst colic cannot be prevented in all cases there are several things horse owners can do to reduce the risk of colic. 

Reducing the risk of colic

Water: Always ensure the horse has access to clean, fresh water. Dehydration impedes gut movement and when ingested feed stops moving through the horse’s gut efficiently, the material can accumulate and cause impaction colic.

No sudden changes to diet: Dietary changes should be made gradually over 2-3 weeks. Studies show a greater colic risk 7-14 days after diet change.

Turnout: Studies have shown horses that have access to pasture turnout have a lower colic risk than those without pasture access.

Maximise forage intake: Consuming forages can provide much of the energy needs of the horse, help maintain gastrointestinal tract function and help prevent boredom in the stabled horse. Conserved forages such as hay should be provided in a way to minimize the horse eating directly off the ground where it would potentially consume sand, dirt, and/or parasites. The Haygain Forager is an ideal solution for this and will also slow down how fast the horse eats its forage so it will last them longer in keeping with the trickle feeding part of gut health to help prevent colic.

Forage hygiene: Poor forage hygiene caused by bacteria and mould in conserved forage has been identified as a risk factor for colic. The quality of forage hygiene can be improved using a Haygain hay steamer which steams at high temperatures to kill bacteria and mould thus improving the hygiene quality of the forage.

Minimize concentrate intake: Colic risk increased 70% for each pound increase in whole grain or corn fed in some studies. Horses eating pelleted feeds are also at increased risk for colic compared to horses on a 100% hay diet.

Regular dental checks: Ensures good ability to thoroughly chew hay and other feed. Horses that are unable to chew their food properly can suffer from impaction colic where pieces of poorly chewed hay block portions of the intestine.

Effective parasite control: Keep parasitic levels in the gastrointestinal tract low. Parasite-related colic can be caused by:

  • Strongyle larvae migrate around the intestine and damage blood vessels, decreasing blood supply and in turn, causing tissue death, decreased motility and pain.
  • Roundworms when heavily infested can cause impaction or obstruction of the intestines, which can cause impaction colic.
  • Deworming medication. Horses that are very heavily infected with parasites may experience a bout of colic after you deworm them with paste wormer. Allowing parasites to build up in the digestive system could cause an impaction of dead worms leaving the system. Best practice is to keep your horse on a regular deworming schedule. 

Winter time can throw up some additional risks to colic, most commonly related to the cold weather months are impaction-colics.

Read our winter colic article for more details.

Recognising the signs of horse colic

Colic episodes vary in type, nature and severity but colic signs include:

  • Pawing at the ground
  • Flank watching
  • Kicking or biting at the belly
  • Rolling
  • Repeated lying down, lying on their back or sitting
  • Repeated curling back of upper lip
  • Sweating
  • Stretching

What to do when a horse has colic

  • Call your vet immediately - time is critical in cases of horse colic
  • Place your horse in a small yard or a well bedded stable to allow for easy and close observation
  • Remove all food from the stable until the veterinarian arrives
  • If your horse is rolling violently, try gently walking them or keeping them standing if it is safe to do so 

Read more on colic in horses.


Cohen N.D., Matejka P.L., Honnas C.M., Hooper R.N. Case-control study of the association between various management factors and development of colic in horses. Texas Equine Colic Study Group. Journal of American veterinary medical association. 1995 206 (5): 67-73

Kaya G.L., Sommerfeld-Stur. Iben C. Risk factors of colic of horses in Austria. Journal of Animal Physiology Animal Nutrition 2009;93:339-49

Reeves M.J., Salman M.D., Smith G. Risk factors for equine acute abdominal disease(colic): Results from a multi-centre case-control study. Preventive Veterinary Medicine Vol 26 Issues 3-4 April 1996 p285-301

Tinker M.D., White N.A., Lessard P., Thatcher C.D., Pelzer K.D., Davis B., Carmel D.K. Prospective study of equine colic incidence and mortality. Equine Veterinary Journal 1997 29 (6): 448-53




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