The signs of colic in horses!


Colic is the general term for abdominal pain, and technically it’s also a sign of something else – the actual source of the discomfort.


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  • Basically, something in your horse’s digestive system is not right. Colic is such a huge unknown, with so many different possibilities, signs, and outcomes. Add to that the complexity of dozens of colic causes, along with different horse personalities, and you end up with seemingly millions of things to worry about.


horse in purple blanket laying down in the field

Only someone who knows this horse can tell you if he’s in trouble or just snoozing. If he was getting up and down and up and down, it’s easier to tell that something’s wrong.


Two things are certain when dealing with horses and colics.


  • One, the seemingly mild cases of an upset tummy can sometimes be deadly, and the seemingly obvious case of colic might be totally minor.


  • Two, because of number one, you must involve your Veterinarian early and only administer meds after talking to them. Pain medications mask signs and make an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan difficult.


  • And just be warned that many colic signs also look like totally normal horse behaviors. This is where knowing your horse’s normal routine and vital signs come in handy.


Signs of colic:


  • Pawing the ground. Many horses do this at certain times out of habit, so learn to differentiate between demand for food/attention and pain. Some horses paw before rolling, some paw at gates, some paw while eating, some paw because they can.


  • Circling as if to lay down. Sometimes they just can’t get comfortable and will try and find the best spot and best side to lay on, but never go down.


digital thermometer reading horse temperature

You need to know your horse’s baseline temp, pulse, and respiration.


  • Rolling. Again, a common behavior. In colic, your horse is trying to relieve pain and pressure. In normal horse behavior, your horse is trying to get the kinks out, cover himself with an earthy smell, scratch his back. For more tidbits of info on rolling, read this.


  • Looking at the flank. As if to say what the heck is going on back there?


  • Belly kicking. It’s your job to decide if it’s colic, or if the flies are just so annoying.


  • Laying down, sometimes getting up, sometimes laying down again.


  • Not eating. Although, many a horse will want to eat during a colic episode, which is generally not recommended by Vets. Another great reason to check in with your Vet to make sure if food is OK or not. Any horse that is not eating is a major emergency.


  • Not drinking. The behavior is a sign, and you can check for hydration by feeling your horse’s gums – pinching the skin isn’t good enough. This hydration test tells the Vet much about the inner workings of his GI system. For more on dehydration, read this.


  • Changes in manure output – volume, frequency, texture, hardness, diarrhea, etc. After dealing with an impaction, I learned to pay even more attention to manure. The manure was getting dryer, in smaller balls, and less frequent the days leading up to the horse showing outward signs of pain. His poops told us about his impaction days before he did! More on manure here.




horse flipping upper lip in flehmen response

In pain or smelling something funny? This is the flehmen response.




  • High pulse rate. Knowing normal TPR for your horse is mandatory if you and your Vet are going to determine what’s abnormal for your horse. Elevated heart rate and sometimes elevated respirations and temperature are signs of pain.


  • Excessive sweating.


  • Immobility or restlessness. Super helpful, right?


Colic clues are subtle!


  • It’s totally OK and even encouraged to call your vet at any time if you suspect colic. Then you can begin to formulate a treatment plan. I would much rather ask a question than let my horse suffer.




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