Tummy Aches in the Horse:  What does this mean and what can we do about it?

The number one killer of horses is due to colic episodes.  Although most cases are mild and resolve on their own, each episode should be treated seriously.  It is a major concern for owners both emotionally and financially.  Treatment cost ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars and creates a loss of training time due to the recovery period depending on the severity of the episode.  It is one of the most common illnesses veterinarians are called out to the ranch for.  The purpose of this article is to minimize its incidence and impact on your horse.

What is colic?  Most people believe it is a disease on its own and only related to the gastrointestinal system.  This is false.  Colic is a symptom of a disease.  It is any abdominal pain that can come from any abdominal organ.  There are over 75 types of abdominal pain in the horse.

A large percentage of colic episodes go unnoticed by the owner, but of the small percentage that is recognized by the caretakers, ~20% require medical treatment and ~5% require surgical treatment.  A large percentage may require no treatment, but should still be acknowledged with concern since a mild episode and a surgical colic can present themselves in a similar manner at first.  Some clinical signs important to recognize are: loss of appetite, repeatedly lying down, turning head towards flank, pawing at the ground, kicking at the belly, rolling repeatedly, stretching out, lack of bowel movements, depression, inappropriate sweating, reduced/absent digestive sounds, and elevated pulse rate (>50 beats per minute).  If any of the signs are observed, the next step is to call your veterinarian immediately.

Calling your veterinarian is of extreme importance.  The sooner we know what is going on, the sooner we can treat your horse, and get him/her on the road to recovery.  Especially in the cases of colic that require surgery, the sooner that horse is able to get to a referral facility, the better the outcome of that patient.  Time is valuable.  The next step is to remove all food from your horse, but to leave some water available.  Even in mild episodes, withholding feed for 8-12 hours is indicated.  Keep your horse in an area it can be watched and allow for it to rest.  Only walk the horse if it is continually trying to roll, in danger of hurting itself, or if told to by your veterinarian.

Before we can evaluate your horse, information you as an owner can obtain is invaluable.  Some examples are: knowing the specific colic signs your horse is exhibiting, its severity, pulse rate, respiratory rate, color and moistness of gums, bowel movements, and medical history.  Any recent changes in its diet, exercise regimen, medications, or environment are helpful as well.  What you should avoid are passing any kind of tube into the horse’s stomach, giving any substance by mouth, particularly liquids, and inserting anything into its rectum.  And please restrain from giving the horse any kind of medication, unless dictated by your veterinarian.  Certain medications, particularly those for pain, can cover up an illness and its severity, which will inhibit your veterinarian from properly diagnosing the full extent of the disease and properly treating it.

The most common risk factors for colic are gastrointestinal parasites, overloading your horse on grain, feeding only once per day, low quality feed, older horses, poor dentition, feeding on sand, certain medications, infections, decreased water intake, dramatic weather changes, strenuous exercise, pregnancy/foaling, among others.  Easy ways to help prevent colic and to dramatically decrease your horses risk are good management systems.

Be sure to properly deworm your horse every two months, alternating between an ivermectin-based dewormer and a pyrantel-based dewormer.  Once yearly, your horse should also be dewormed for tapeworms.  Providing good quality hay, feeding less than 4 pounds of grain, increasing frequency of feeding to 2-3 times per day, and keeping the feed off of the ground are all beneficial strategies.  It is necessary to have your horse’s teeth floated annually, exercise daily, provide clean, fresh water, avoid stressful situations when possible, maintain accurate records, and avoid giving any medications unless prescribed by your veterinarian.

Colic is a big concern in the horse industry.  Treat every episode as potentially serious, minimize its impact with good management, and call your veterinarian immediately.  We want what is best for both you and your horse.  For more information on specific causes of colic and treatment, please contact your veterinarian and/or visit

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