Curious About Colic?

There are many types of colic a horse can suffer from and in the majority of cases, a specific cause may not be identifiable. These cases are referred to as idiopathic and include mild colic, impaction, gas/spasmodic colic. The most common types of non-idiopathic colic (cause known) are enteritis, displacement, torsion, and sand colic.

Impaction – This is an obstruction in the horse’s colon resulting from an accumulation of sand, dirt, feed, or some other indigestible material, including enteroliths [1] and sand colic [2]. In most cases, dehydration or poor quality feed result in impactions.  

Spasmodic/gas – This can be caused by a buildup of excess gases or fluids in the colon, or could simply be an involuntary contraction or spasm. Improper fermentation of food, inflammation, poor parasite management, colonic or gastric ulcers, and stress can also cause spasmodic colic.

Enteritis – Quite simply, enteritis is an inflammation of the intestine caused by infection, bacteria, and virus.

Displacement and Torsion –  The suspension of the small intestine from the mesentery and the unfixed nature of most of the large intestine make it very susceptible to displacement and torsions. When displacement occurs, a portion of the intestine has moved into an unnatural position in the abdomen and a twist in the intestines is the most insidious form of colic. These types of colic result in a complete blockage in the intestine and require immediate surgery.  

Management Techniques

Establishing and maintaining a healthy diet and feeding routine for your horse is the most important and effective prevention tool for colic.  Feed several small meals throughout the day consisting primarily of roughage in the form of grass and hay, limit grain where possible, allow for foraging, and provide a constant supply of fresh water.

Other factors to consider are parasite management and exercise. A regular deworming schedule is required to minimize the parasite load in the horse’s gut. Tapeworms attach near the junction of the small intestine and cecum, damaging the intestinal mucosa and causing nerve degeneration. A large concentration of tapeworms (or other parasites) can obstruct the bowel. Even smaller populations of tapeworms can cause ileal impaction, spasmodic colic, and even intussusception and rupture.  

Exercise also has a preventative role. Horses are not meant to spend extended periods of time standing in stalls, and research has shown that even light physical activity like walking stimulates g.i. motility and increases the digestibility of fiber by up to 20%.


If your horse is exhibiting symptoms of colic, the first thing you should do is call your vet. If the horse is lying quietly, it is best to let it rest rather than walk, potentially causing more discomfort and draining its energy. On the other hand, if the horse is rolling, pawing or thrashing about in response to the pain, then getting it to walk quietly is a good course of action because not only could the horse injure itself by getting a leg or foot caught in a fence or under a stall door, it could also go into shock from overexertion.

Banamine can be administered in instances of spasmodic (stress-induced) colic, where there is no impaction suspected. The problem with owner-administered Banamine is that owners may not be aware of the potential side-effects and correct dosing. Also, if there is an impaction, the Banamine could ease the discomfort enough to mask the symptoms, leading to further complications.

The best-case scenario any horse owner can hope for where colic is involved is that it is caught early and is a result of a) stress (spasmodic) which will most likely pass with minimal treatment – Banamine may be administered to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, or b) a blockage, which, if minimal, can be remedied by a dose of mineral oil.

Worst-case scenario, the horse has a twisted intestine (torsion) and will require surgery. While surgery has a high success rate if the colic is caught early enough, it is quite costly and puts the owner in the difficult position of choosing between surgery and euthanasia.

Bottom line, calling the vet at the first sign of colic is of the utmost importance to increase the chances of a successful outcome.


[1] An enterolith is a stone-like formation of minerals that forms around a foreign object that a horse has ingested, similar to a gall stone in humans. While an enterolith can grow to a significant size, reaching a weight of up to 15 pounds, they will sometimes pass completely through the horse’s system and seldom completely block the passage of food through the g.i. tract. They can, however, cause mild bouts of impaction colic if they migrate to an area where food can’t pass.

[2] Horses in sandy regions are susceptible to impaction colic when large amounts of sand (upwards of 30 pounds) collects in the g.i. tract. Preventative measures include supplements and elevating hay and grain off of the ground.


Brown, J. (2012). “Banamine.” Horse & Pony, February 2012.

Lenz, T. (2012). “Horse Health: Tapeworms.” American Association of Equine Practitioners, April 2012.

Loving, N. (2006). “ Impaction Colic: Blocking the Way.” The Horse, May 2006.

Sellnow, L. (1999). “Colic: To Walk or Not to Walk.” The Horse, September 1999.

The Equine Research Centre. (2016). “The Colic Fact Sheet.” Accessed 20 Sept. 2016

Unknown. (2016). “Understanding Enteroliths.” Equus Magazine. Accessed 21 Sept. 2016.

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