How to Tell if Your Horse Has Colic
“Colic” is the big bad “C” word in the equestrian world; this illness is abdominal pain in horses that can be fatal. Colic can be caused by a few different things, from impaction in the intestines to excessive gas. While no one likes thinking that their horse could colic, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of this illness. Quick diagnosis and action could be the difference between death and life for your horse.
How can you tell if your horse has colic? There are multiple symptoms and behaviors that you may see in your horse if they have colic. These include:
- Seeming uncomfortable, agitated, or restless
- Stiffness of the abdomen
- No guttural noises in the abdomen
- Not able to pass manure; no manure in stalls
- Pawing and kicking at their belly
- Looking at their belly
- Excessive laying down and rolling
When it comes to determining if your horse has colic, it’s always better to play on the safe side and call the vet, even if you’re not 100% sure. It is very rare that colic will go away on its own, and not getting a veterinarian involved right away could be a fatal mistake. Keep reading to learn more about how to recognize these symptoms and know if your horse has colic.
Colic in Horses Sign #1: Agitation and Restlessness
No one knows your horse better than you do. If your horse’s behavior seems off, it could mean many different things, including illness. A sick horse, no matter the illness, will not seem like themselves. Some sicknesses can make a horse lethargic and depressed, while other illnesses can make them restless or even aggressive.
With colic, horses will tend to become agitated and restless. Colic causes the horse pain like a bad stomachache; this makes the horse agitated, as the pain won’t go away. Rarely will you see a horse with colic standing still; instead, they will be pacing and moving about. If you walk into the stables on a quiet late morning when the horses are usually dozing away, and you notice one restless horse, call the vet!
Colic in Horses Sign #2: Stiffness of the Abdomen
Stiffness in the abdomen can be another sign of colic in horses. As the intestines try to push blockages through the system, the abdomen will strongly contract. Sometimes, you can see the stiffness in the horse’s abdomen; other times, if you place your hand there, you will be able to feel it. The horse’s underbelly, towards the back leg, will feel rock hard.
Colic in Horses Sign #3: No Guttural Noises
A healthy horse gut will make many different noises, from thunder rumblings to gurgling, and everything in between! If you place your ear to your horse’s side, right in front of their hip, you’ll be able to hear all of these weird noises.
If you suspect that your horse has colic, check and see if you can hear the healthy gut sounds. If you hold your ear to the horse’s gut and aren’t able to hear anything, it’s a sign that there is something wrong with your horse’s intestines.
Colic in Horses Sign #4: Not Able to Pass Manure
When a horse has colic, either food, gas, or an object has impacted in the intestines, causing a blockage. It becomes impossible for anything else to pass through. If your horse has colic, you may notice that they have very little manure in their stall. If they do manage to pass manure, it may look slimy or unhealthy.
Colic in Horses Sign #5: Pawing and Kicking at the Belly
One sign of restlessness your horse may demonstrate if they have colic is pawing. They may walk and paw, walk, and paw. Pawing is one of the main ways horses show that they are agitated.
Another thing a horse with colic may do is kick at their belly with their back legs. This behavior will look like a horse in the summer kicking at flies. The horse wants the pain it is feeling in its belly gone, so it may kick its legs trying to get rid of it.
Colic in Horses Sign #6: Looking at the Belly
For the same reason a horse with colic may kick at its belly, it may also turn its head and look at its belly. It knows there’s something wrong there and it hurts. Don’t ignore this sign, as it may be more subtle, but one that is done often.
Colic in Horses Sign #7: Excessive Laying Down and Rolling
Perhaps the behavior most associated with colic is rolling. When I was a kid, I would have a “gas bubble,” as my mom would call them. She would tell me to wiggle my body. I would wiggle around, and surprisingly, it would wiggle the gas bubble out! Now, that story may be TMI, but horses actually try to do the same thing by rolling. Horses roll when they have colic to try and help loosen or move along whatever is stuck in their intestines.
A horse with colic rolling is different from a horse rolling after a bath. A horse with colic will be frantic. You may see them get up and lay back down, get up and lay back down. They’ll roll numerous times. Horses in this situation will also not be focused on their surroundings; they could easily roll and get themselves stuck up against a fence or a wall.
What to Do If Your Horse Has Colic
If you suspect that your horse has colic, call the vet immediately. Not only will a vet be able to administer medication to alleviate the pain your horse is dealing with, but they can also pump water into your horse’s stomach to help pass impaction and use a tube to help your horse pass gas.
As you wait for the vet, try to get ahold of your horse and lead them around. By doing this, you can help your horse focus on something else while you wait. You can also monitor your horse and keep them from rolling and putting themselves in another precarious situation.
If you have peppermint essential oils or peppermint leaves laying around, you can try and dab some on your horse’s gums. Peppermint can help relieve gas, and it could even be enough to stop your horse’s colic in some cases.
While you wait, don’t let your horse eat or drink; this may cause more problems depending on the type of colic your horse has.
In the majority of cases, a veterinarian can free the horse from impaction through medical treatments. In some cases, however, the only way to save the horse may be through surgery. Colic surgery costs around $8,000. The survival rate for these surgeries is around 70%; however, having a colic surgery done does not mean the horse will never colic again.
How to Keep Your Horse From Having Colic
As with everything in life, you can’t fully prevent colic from happening to your horse, but you can take steps to greatly decrease its chances. Here are some habits to implement into your daily routine to decrease your horse’s chance of colic:
- Make sure your horse ALWAYS has access to fresh water
- Soak grain and other feeds to prevent impaction
- Eliminate feeding your horse in a sandy area; feed over grass
- Introduce new foods slowly and in small amounts.
- Get your horse’s teeth floated annually so they are able to effectively chew food
- Deworm your horse regularly to avoid impaction.
- Feed a diet high in fiber to aid in digestion.
If you stay on top of these aspects, not only will you be avoiding colic, but your horse will remain healthier overall.
Know the Signs of Colic
I’ve been involved with horses for almost 20 years now and in that time I’ve only experienced colic twice with two different horses. According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, every year, 4 out of 100 horses will experience colic. That number is low, and if you are adequately taking care of your horse, you drastically decrease their odds.
Out of the two times I experienced horses with colic, I was able to notice something was wrong as soon as I saw the horses. Knowledge is power, and it can also give you peace of mind. Learning the signs of colic can help you act fast if you ever find yourself in that situation.
Being able to monitor your horse’s health is just one aspect of horse care. If you are in the process of getting your first horse, or you just got your first horse and would like a complete breakdown of the different aspects of horse care, check out my online course Horse Care Keys to Success here.