What Causes a Colic In Horses? Best Colic Treatments

Last Updated on December 2, 2021

Every horse owner, rider, and enthusiast has heard the word “colic.” In the horse world, colic in horses refers to a condition a horse experiences when something in its digestive system has become irritated for a variety of different reasons.  In this article, I will be exploring what causes a horse to colic, the best colic treatments, possible preventatives, and more.

It is useful for all horse people to have a good knowledge of colic, in case they are ever put in a situation where that knowledge could benefit a horse in need.

Colic In Horses Symptoms

The first step in beating colic is recognizing it when you see it.  Some signs your horse might be experiencing colic include rolling, pawing, scratching at the stomach, and the absence of droppings for a fair amount of time.  Horse and Hound breaks down the likelihood of these symptoms and more with the following statistics:

“44% roll
43% paw continuously or intermittently
29% lie down for long periods
21% get up and down
14% repeatedly look at their flank
13% curl their upper lip
10% back into a corner
7% kick at their abdomen
4% stand in a stretched position as if trying to pass urine
1% fail to pass droppings for longer than 24hr…”

Colic In Horses Symptoms

Different types of Colic In Horses and their Causes

Gas Colic

This occurs when gas builds up in a horse’s stomach or intestines. Horses experiencing gas colic have most likely eating moldy feeds or too much rich feed; similar to if you were to eat expired cheese or eat too much steak.

Spasmodic Colic

This occurs in response to muscle contractions in the horse’s stomach.  It is often caused by too much excitement, stress, or anxiety. Common causes for these in horses include traveling, competition, and exposure to new horses. Think of getting stomach aches when you are nervous or anxious about a situation.

Different types of Colic In Horses and their Causes

Twisted gut

It is the most well-known, and often the most dangerous type of colic. This causes your horse’s intestines to flip, which can cause them to become tangled.  It can be caused by many things, but most frequently dehydration or ingestion of dry feeds or dry substances such as dust. This is the most dangerous kind of colic and often requires surgery

Impaction Colic

This occurs when there is a blockage in the horse’s intestine. Think almost of kidney stones for people.  This type of colic can be extremely painful for your horse, but is easy for vets to treat.

There are rarer and very specific forms of colic, but these four are the most common to be seen in horses today.

Colic In Horses Treatments

There are three primary treatments for colic, and, understandably, the treatment used will depend on the type and severity of colic that your horse is experiencing.  These include laxatives, nasogastric tubes, and surgery.

If the horse is experiencing impaction colic, treatment could come in the form of a laxative.  Similar to using laxatives in people, it will help the horse pass the blockage that is causing the colic. This treatment is simple and can be done by a vet at your barn. Once it is clear that the horse has passed the blockage, and more afterwards, life can continue as normal.

If the horse is experiencing gas colic or spasmodic colic, nasogastric tubes are often used.  These tubes help relieve gas buildup in the horse’s abdomen. This treatment is also relatively simple and can be done by a vet from your barn.

If the horse is experiencing twisted gut, and there truly is a flip or twist in the horse’s intestine, surgery will, unfortunately, be necessary. Many factors will affect the success of the colic surgery, and it is a surgery that must be performed at a veterinary hospital.

Colic In Horses Preventatives

Ideally, the best way to treat colic is to prevent it from happening in the first place. While not all cases of colic can be prevented, there are things that you can do for your horse in order to make colic less likely.  

1) Make sure your horse is being fed on a regular schedule.  Horses are like people; they thrive off routines and schedules. If they are getting fed irregularly, it could cause unnecessary stress and discomfort, which could ultimately lead to colic.

Colic In Horses Treatments


2) If you are transitioning your horse to a new feed, do it slowly.  Introduce the new feed in smaller quantities mixed with the old feed. Do this gradually for at least a week until your horse is accustomed to the new feed.  In this regard, horses are not like us; they don’t have different foods every day. Instead, they eat the same food every meal every day. So, changing their feed can cause stress and discomfort, if it isn’t done properly.

3) Make sure your horse always has clean water that they are willing to drink.  In other words, make sure that their water isn’t freezing cold in the winter, and boiling hot in the summer.  Think of what you prefer to drink during cold and warm weather. Drinking a hot cup of tea on a muggy summer day is enough to make anyone sick.  Make sure your horse has access to cold water in the summer and warmer water in the winter to avoid causing any additional discomfort

Colic In Horses Preventatives

More on Prevention

4) Make sure your horse is being dewormed regularly.  If your horse does have worms, he is more likely to have bacteria growing in his stomach and intestines, which is a very easy way for him to colic.

5) Make sure your horse’s food (grain, hay, etc.) is stored properly and is in viable condition.  In other words, make sure your food storage areas are clean, free of mold, and relatively free of dust and dirt.  Feeding your horse spoiled food is a quick way for him to contract colic.


6) Sixth and lastly, make sure your horse is moving around enough.  Remember, horses used to live outside 24-7. Today, horses have limited turnout and exercise routines, depending on weather, schedules, and other factors.  Your horse needs to at least be free to move outside of a stall a few hours a day to remain in a mentally healthy state. If not, anxiety and stress can lead to colic.


Colic can be devastating for horse and owner, but if the right steps are taken to prevent it and treat it, it can be cured. Understanding what causes a horse to colic and the best colic treatments is the first step to making sure you are adequately for your horse’s gastro and intestinal needs.  

Colic is frequently preventable if basic horsemanship and horse-keeping knowledge are implemented. Use your common horse-sense coupled with your knowledge of common causes of colic, and your horse will be as protected as possible from colic.


What kind of feed most often causes colic in horses?

Colic in horses usually results from ingestion of a feed that is too rich for the horse, or that the horse has eaten too quickly. One common colic culprit is alfalfa hay. Alfalfa hay is a high-energy feed, and if a horse isn't used to eating it, or if the hay is mouldy or contains parasites, colic can appear as a result.
Other feeds that are high in sugar or starch, such as grains, can also cause colic in horses. If a horse consumes too much grain, it can cause a condition called "gastric ulcers." These ulcers form in the stomach and can lead to colic, as well as other health problems.
Another factor besides colics from hay/feed can be a change in a horse's diet as well as changes in a horse's environment. The horse's digestive system needs time to adjust to any changes, so it's important not to make too many changes at once. If you are planning to change your horse's feed, do it gradually over a period of several days.

Can colic be fatal?

If a horse has colic and doesn't get treatment, the colic can cause serious health problems, such as impaction colic or rupture of the intestines. These problems can lead to death in some cases.
If you think your horse might have colic, it's important to get veterinary care as soon as possible. If colic is caught early, a veterinarian may be able to treat the horse without surgery, only with colic medicine such as phenylbutazone. However, if colic is more severe, surgery may be necessary.
So, colic can be fatal if not treated. It's important to watch your horse for any signs of colic and to get veterinary care as soon as possible if you think your horse might be sick.

What are the most common colic symptoms?

The most common colic symptoms in horses include abdominal pain, restlessness, and increased heart rate. If a horse has colic, it might also show symptoms such as sweating and an elevated temperature.
In most cases of colic, the gas is trapped within the intestines. This causes abdominal distension with pain that sometimes horses are trying to relieve by rolling on their back or kicking. The pain may cause the horse to become restless and even refuse food and water.
Colic can be a life-threatening condition if not treated, therefore it's important to recognize the symptoms as soon as they occur and get veterinary care for your horse right away.

What are risk factors for colic?

There are many risk factors that predispose a horse to colic, including age, breed, and temperament.
Foals and young horses are more prone to colic than adult horses, and colic is also more common in certain breeds of horses, such as Arabians and American Saddlebreds.
Colic can be triggered by a change in the environment or diet. These changes can include things such as a new place, a different feed, and even stress from being transported to a new location. Horses who are stabled all the time are more prone to colic than horses who are allowed to roam free.
Temperament also plays a role in colic risk, as nervous or high-strung horses are more likely to get colic than horses who are naturally calmer.