What to do if Your Horse is Colicking
Reviewed By: Dr. Andris J. Kaneps, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSR
Updated July 7, 2022
Colic, or abdominal pain in the horse, can range from a short-lived, possibly unnoticed, to severe, unrelenting discomfort that may or may not be correctable even with surgery. Knowing what to do to do if your horse has colic, 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 has Colic:
If you see signs of colic in your horse, remove all food, put your horse in a safe area, evaluate any vital signs you safely can, and call your veterinarian. Information that will be especially helpful to your veterinarian in determining if your horse needs to be seen and in instructing you on 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 (how many seconds until color returns following firm pressure on the gums)
- Digestive sounds (regular gurgles about 3 per minute, none audible, rapid gassy sounds)
- Manure production, including color, consistency, and frequency
- Any recent changes in management, feeding, or exercise
- Condition of the stall (bedding torn up due to rolling or hyperactivity, undisturbed bedding)
- 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 is Colicking:
You do not need to walk your horse constantly or keep him standing. There’s simply no truth to the myth that horses twist their intestines by rolling. Some hand walking or calmly resting until the veterinarian arrives is all that is needed.
Also, don’t administer anything by mouth or by injection UNLESS YOUR VETERINARIAN SPECIFICALLY INSTRUCTS YOU TO DO SO. Some medications mask signs of colic, potentially making your horse look temporarily more comfortable. This may complicate the treatment decisions your veterinarian must make during the examination.
What to Expect When the Veterinarian Comes for Colic
Depending on how painful your horse is, your veterinarian 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 changes) and to review your recent observations of the colic. Then your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, which may include a rectal palpation, passing a nasogastric (stomach) tube, sampling of abdominal fluid for analysis (“belly tap”), drawing blood, and other tests.
Based on this examination, your veterinarian may start medical treatment on-site, or refer your horse to a veterinary hospital for medical treatment or colic surgery. Medical treatment may include drugs to relieve pain, sedatives, fluid therapy—either by stomach tube or intravenous catheter—and laxatives such as mineral oil. It’s not always clear-cut when colic cases can be resolved medically and when surgical treatment is required. Findings that suggest surgery may be required include:
- a high heart rate,
- pain that is not resolved with medication or that returns very quickly after appropriate drugs are administered, or
- rectal palpation of an intestinal twist or displacement.
The decision to take your horse to surgery can be an easier one if your horse is enrolled in ColiCare, SmartPak’s $15,000 colic surgery reimbursement program.