What to do if Your Horse is Colicking
Dr. Lydia Gray
Colic, or abdominal pain in in the horse, can range from a short-lived, mild bellyache that often goes unnoticed to severe, unrelenting discomfort that may or may not be correctable even with surgery. Knowing what to do if your horse colics, what NOT to do, and what to expect if and when your veterinarian comes out are important skills for all horse owners to have.
What you SHOULD do if your horse colics:
If you see any signs of colic in your horse, remove all food, put him in a safe area, collect whatever vital signs you safely can, and call your vet. Information that will be especially helpful to your vet in determining if your horse needs to be seen and in instructing you what to do in the meantime includes:
- Specific signs of colic, and their severity
- Pulse or heart rate (beats per minute)
- Respiratory rate (breaths per minute)
- Rectal temperature
- Color of the gums (white, pale pink, dark pink, red, or bluish-purple)
- Moistness of the gums (moist, tacky, or dry)
- Capillary refill time
- Digestive sounds (if any)
- Bowel movements, including color, consistency, and frequency
- Any recent changes in management, feeding, or exercise
- Medical history, including deworming and any past episodes of colic
- Breeding history and pregnancy status
- Insurance status of the horse
What you should NOT do if your horse colics:
Don’t feel that you have to walk your horse constantly or keep him standing. There’s simply no truth to the myth that horses twist their intestines by rolling. While some handwalking is okay (and helpful), calmly resting until the vet arrives is okay as well.
Also, don’t administer anything by mouth or by injection UNLESS YOUR VET SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU TO DO SO. Some medications mask signs, so when your vet comes out your horse might temporarily look better but as soon as he or she leaves your horse shows signs again. Other medications simply might be inappropriate. Lastly, you don’t want to risk MISadministering anything by any route. Colicky horses can sometimes be moving targets so even if you usually feel confident giving an IM or IV injection, it can be trickier on a frantic horse.
What to expect if and when the vet comes for colic
Depending on how painful your horse is, your vet may get right to work treating him or start by reviewing some facts with you. Be prepared to provide an accurate history (including your feeding program, your horse’s usual exercise and turnout routine, your deworming and vaccination programs, any recent travel or other change) and to review your recent observations. Then your vet will perform his or her own physical examination, which may include a rectal palpation, passing a nasogastric (stomach) tube, a “belly tap” which is collecting fluid from the abdominal cavity, drawing blood, and other tests.
Based on this exam, your vet may start medical treatment on site (which could include pain-relievers, sedatives, fluid therapy—either by stomach tube or IV catheter—and laxatives such as mineral oil), refer your horse for medical treatment at a veterinary hospital, or refer your horse directly to surgery. It’s not always clear-cut when a colic can be resolved medically and when surgery is required, but a horse with a high heart rate, pain that cannot be resolved with medication or that returns very quickly, or palpating a twist or displacement rectally are all indications that surgery may be necessary. The decision to take your horse to surgery (often needing to be made late at night) can be an easier one if your horse is enrolled in ColiCare, SmartPak’s $10,000 colic surgery reimbursement program.
Read more about colic in our Equine Colic & Digestive Health article.
SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.