The curse of colic

The curse of colic

Colic, which is a term describing all forms of abdominal pain, can affect horses of all ages, from shortly after birth until an advanced age. Sadly, it’s often also the cause of death in many old horses. In most cases, the abdominal pain is originating from the intestine. In rare cases, liver, bladder or kidney disease or problems with the reproductive system can also cause colic signs. In this feature, the focus is on pain originating from the gastrointestinal tract.

Although most colic episodes are benign and often resolve either without any or with minimal veterinary attention, there is a possibility that a more serious lesion is responsible for the signs the horse is showing.

Know the signs

The classic signs of colic are well known and include repeated pawing, laying down, looking at the flanks and rolling. Horses might also show more subtle signs such as lack of appetite, teeth grinding or frequent posturing as if to urinate. Unfortunately, colic signs are the same, regardless of what the underlying cause is but the severity of the signs will give you some indication of how severe the underlying condition is.

Different types

Colic pain occurs when the intestine becomes distended with gas or fluid or when the blood supply to parts of the intestine is disrupted. This can happen when the intestine moves out of its normal position in the abdomen, obstructing the normal flow of ingesta (feed material) and gas. Even more seriously, sometimes the intestine can twist in a way that obstructs the blood supply. If this happens, no oxygen can be transported to the affected part of the gut and the tissue dies. These types of lesions are called strangulating lesions and are the most serious types of colic as they require immediate surgery.

Lying down and rolling are two well-known indicators

What to look out for


Spasmodic colic refers to a mild, short-lived colic episode that resolves quickly and without any or with minimal treatment. The equivalent in people might be temporary stomach cramps.

When do you suspect your horse might have a spasmodic colic?

Initial colic signs are mild to moderate, maybe laying down, pawing or looking at the abdomen. Often, the signs of discomfort will have passed by the time your vet arrives or they resolve quickly with an injection of a drug that relieves the gut spasm.


When vets talk about an impaction, they usually mean an impaction of dried-out feed material in the large intestine. Most commonly, the impaction is in the colon, but occasionally it can also be in the caecum. The size of an impaction is often underestimated by owners: vets sometimes use the expression ‘size of a small child’ (picture a 3-4-year-old child in a crouched position), which describes the dimensions quite well. Impactions occur if horses don’t drink enough or if they have poor teeth.

Any change in their daily routine, particularly box rest due to injury or disease, can also predispose a horse to developing an impaction. Caecal impactions are much rarer but also much more difficult to recognise and treat and can dangerous.

When do you suspect your horse might have an impaction colic?

If your horse has been eating normally but has not passed faeces and is then showing colic signs, an impaction is possible. Caecal impactions are hard to identify as the horse keeps passing faeces but not quite as many as usual. Ensure your horse is not eating as long as the impaction is present. Your vet will tell you when to restart feeding.


Vets refer to a displacement of the large intestine, usually the colon. Essentially, the colon moves out of its normal place and gets trapped on the right or left side of the abdomen.

When do you suspect your horse might have a displacement?

Displacements can cause mild to severe signs of pain and are best diagnosed by an internal palpation carried out by your vet. If your horse looks bloated, it could indicate a more severe problem.


Strangulating lesions can affect the large or, more commonly, the small intestine. People often call it a ‘twist’ in the intestine. No oxygen is delivered to the affected gut and it starts to die slowly. If the condition is recognised early and the horse undergoes immediate surgery, the intestine can often be saved. Without surgery, the colic worsens and the horse will die.

When do you suspect your horse might have a strangulating lesion?

If your horse shows moderate to severe signs of pain that do not respond to pain relief given by your vet it could have a strangulation. A high heart rate and respiratory rate and dark red gums can also be indications. However, some horses can be very stoic and show very little signs of pain or only one initial severe episode followed by dullness.

Repeated pawing at the ground is a sign all is not well and it’s time to call the vet

How to deal with colic

Preparation is key: make sure you have the emergency number of your vet practice at hand in a place where it can be easily found

  • If you do not have your own transport also have a list of friends or professional transporters
  • You should always contact your vet if your horse is showing signs of colic. Often a quick examination and injection will solve the problem
  • If you see colic signs, take any food away. Water is usually okay unless your vet tells you otherwise
  • Walking your horse while you wait for the vet to arrive might distract the horse and prevents it from rolling and injuring itself
  • Any drugs should only be given under the guidance of your vet
  • Make sure to mention to your vet any medications the horse is usually on, particularly drugs for arthritis or other painful conditions.

A horse’s abdomen is extremely big and, despite the vet’s best efforts and use of modern technology, the exact cause of the colic can often only be established during an operation. Luckily, most colics resolve without the need for surgery. As it can be difficult to identify the exact cause by examination alone, surgery is also called ‘an exploratory’ as it serves to fully explore the abdomen and then find out exactly what is causing the pain. At the same time, any issues can be resolved.

An abdominal surgery is costly and not without risks or complications but, luckily, the prognosis for survival and return to full work is good, with 80% of surviving horses returning to their previous level of performance [1].


[1] Immonen IA, Karikoski N, Mykkanen A, et al. Long-term follow-up on recovery, return to use and sporting activity: a retrospective study of 236 operated colic horses in Finland (2006-2012). Acta Vet Scand 2017;59:5.

Peace of mind

At KBIS, we continue to strive to provide market-leading products that meet the changing needs of our customers. Working alongside equine vets and horse owners, we have introduced a wide variety of cover options to suit a range of requirements and budgets. These options include the following, often unique, levels of cover:

  • £7,500 for colic surgery
  • 15 months to claims for vets fees, permanent loss of use and mortality
  • £6,000 per incident
  • catastrophe cover – lifesaving cover on a budget.

Our team at KBIS are filled with individuals with one common interest, a passion for horses. With many having their own horses and having evented themselves, as well as being experts within the insurance field, you can be sure any queries you may have will be resolved with their knowledge and understanding.

Not only can KBIS offer cover for your horse, we can provide cover for all of your equestrian insurance needs. From breakdown cover to business insurance, your horsebox to your home, KBIS have got you covered.

We are also pleased to offer an exclusive Personal Accident policy for British Eventing members. It provides the opportunity for British Eventing members to take out comprehensive Personal Accident insurance at preferential rates. Key benefits include the following:

  • weekly pay-outs if you suffer an accident that leaves you temporarily unable to work
  • replacement of equipment to get you safely back in the saddle
  • catastrophe pay-out for permanent total disablement as a result of an accident
  • travel expenses to get you home if you are injured abroad
  • cover is for any accidents riding or handling horses as standard.

For more information on the products KBIS is able to offer or to receive a quote call the team on 0345 230 2323.

This article was first published in the Spring 2021 issue of British Eventing Life.