Combating horse colic – remember to REACT!

By Wendy Talbot on 13 February 2017

Combating horse colic

The horse’s digestive tract is very sensitive and it’s remarkably long, at more than 30 metres from oesophagus to rectum. If you were to unravel it, it would be twice the length of a London bus. It’s little wonder then that horse colic is the most common equine veterinary emergency.

Colic is a symptom rather than a disease in itself. It defines abdominal pain and can indicate a problem in the gut or other organs in the abdomen. Colic can affect any horse of any age or breed. Some cases may be mild and easily resolved while others can be fatal. Every case should always be treated as an emergency.

Recent research by the University of Nottingham has found that colic accounts for a third of emergency vet call outs with at least one in ten of these being critical. Of these only around 20% survive.

Spotting the signs of horse colic

The best way to get clued up about the signs of colic is to familiarise yourself with the British Horse Society and the University of Nottingham’s educational campaign REACT Now to Beat Colic.

By memorising the acronym REACT you will always have the symptoms of horse colic to hand. Early detection will improve the chances of your horse making a full recovery:

R – Restless or agitated

Is your horse attempting to lie down? Repeatedly rolling? Box-walking or circling? Sweating for no apparent reason?

E – Eating less or droppings reduced

Is your horse eating less or nothing? Passing fewer or no droppings? Has the consistency of droppings changed?

A – Abdominal Pain

Is your horse flank watching? Pawing? Belly kicking?

C – Clinical Changes

Does your horse have increased heart rate? Reduced or absent gut sounds? Changes in the colour of the gums? Rapid breathing? Skin abrasions over the eyes?

T – Tired or Lethargic

Is your horse lying down more? Have a lowered head position? Looking dull and depressed?

What should I do if I think my horse has colic?

  • Call your vet immediately
  • Make sure your horse is in a safe area such as a well-bedded stable or in an arena on a lunge line
  • Remove all hay and feed
  • Do not force your horse to walk if it is reluctant
  • Allow your horse to lie down and/or roll in a safe place if it wants to – this will not make the colic worse
  • Watch but don’t interfere
  • Keep yourself safe around your horse and beware of unpredictable behaviour
  • Check to see if your horse’s insurance covers colic to help you make decisions about treatment options
  • Make a transport plan in case your horse needs to be taken to a veterinary hospital – ensure you have fuel and you have everything ready to go if needed.
  • Don’t forget your horse’s passport

Types of colic

Your vet will be able to identify the type of colic your horse is suffering from and provide the most suitable treatment.

Spasmodic colic – increased intestinal contractions and abnormal spasms can cause pain.

Tympanic or gas colic – a build of gas in the intestine can cause pain.

Impaction colic – the intestine can become blocked by a firm mass of food. This can cause low-grade pain for prolonged periods. Most cases resolve with appropriate treatment but a small number may require surgery or may be fatal if severe or not treated promptly.

Sand colic – ingestion and accumulation of sand or dirt in the gut can cause irritation of the bowel lining and may also lead to an impaction.

Displacement and torsion – if a portion of the intestine moves to an abnormal position in the abdomen it can cause an obstruction. Some displacements can be treated medically but more severe cases may need surgery. A torsion occurs when a piece of intestine twists and this can cause a total blockage and cut off the blood supply, requiring immediate surgery.

How to reduce the risk 

Worm control: It’s important to follow a responsible worm control plan

Dental checks: Teeth should be checked every 12 months minimum

Forage: At least 60% of your horse’s diet should be from forage, preferably supplied on an ad hoc basis.

Concentrates: If concentrate feeds are needed give small meals often rather than fewer big meals.

Changes in diet: Make any changes to forage or concentrate rations slowly.

Water: Provide a constant supply of fresh, clean water.

Grazing: Avoid sparse pastures where sand or dirt may be ingested. Restrict assess to lush grass. Supplement grazing with hay or haylage in cold, icy weather

Turnout: Provide daily turnout

Exercise: Don’t feed or water in large quantities prior to or immediately after exercise. Horses should always be warmed up and cooled down appropriately.




Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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