10 Early Signs of Colic in Horses - Causes and Prevention

Is your horse just pawing around the ground or air for food or is it one of the early signs of colic? It is difficult to predict the worrisome condition called ‘colic in horses’ by seeing one or two common signs. You must keep the horse’s diet and behavior under strict observation when suspecting colic. We are going to discuss all common and specific early colic signs that would help you in the early diagnosis and treatment of fatal colic in horses.

What is ‘Colic’ in Horses?

The literal meaning of the word ‘colic’ is abdominal pain. In horses, colic is another emergency where the horse may lose his life to a late diagnosis. Although, the abdominal pain source could lie within the horse’s abdomen or its intestines.

Colic is extremely painful to horses and can be fatal if not treated early.

Amid the wide range of causative factors of colic in horses, intussusception remains the most common reason. Intussusception is the impaction of different diameter segments of the intestine.

Listing the causes of colic will help you to avoid faulty practices that may lead to the development of colic in horses.

What are the Causes of Colic in Horses?

Some of the common and underrated causes of colic in horses are-

1. Stall-fed Horses

Horses which are stall-fed or kept in confinement are more prone to Gas Colic. According to the research, it increases the chances of colic by 50% in confined horses than in those who’re allowed for pasture grazing.

Increased stabling (12 hours or more in a day) leads to decreased colonic motility and increases the chances of indigestion in horses

2. High Concentrate or Low Forage Diet

Horses digest forage better than concentrates. Large amounts of grains and concentrate in horse feeds increase the risk of developing colic.

Along with keeping horses in confinement, less forage in the diet is the reason behind a ‘Gassy Horse.

Gas production in a horse is a sign of healthy fermentation and normal. But if this gas can’t pass through a large colon because of any abnormality, it causes abdominal pain.

3. Developing Vices in Horses

Horses in confinement develop vices like crib-biting and wind-sucking. These vices ultimately welcome the digestion issue and abdomen discomfort in horses.

4. Sudden Feed Changes

The microflora in the horse's gut adapts to digesting a particular feed and hay. Sudden changes in the regular diet of horses may induce colic because of the disruption of microbes in their gut.

Thus, you must make all feeding changes gradually over a 7-10 day period.

5. Inadequate Deworming Schedule

Ascarid worms can block intestines and cause colic, but regular deworming helps prevent this in horses. Blockage by the parasites obstructs ingesta passage in the gut, causing further complications.

6. Dehydration in Horses

We must provide horses with ad libitum water throughout the day. If your horse isn’t having access to enough clean drinking water, it is having a higher chance of developing Impaction Colic.

7. Long-term use of NSAIDs

The irrational use of NSAIDs in horses leads to recurring or lower-grade colic in horses. Don't start NSAID medication for horse pain without consulting a vet.

What are the Early Signs of Colic in Horses?

Not all horses with colic present the same signs. Also, the common signs like pawing the ground, and kicking at the belly may or may not be associated with the incidence of colic in horses.

Behavioral along with the physical signs are important to confirm the colic case.

Colic signs can be difficult to understand for not-so-experienced horse owners.

We have got you covered in recognizing the early signs of colic in horses. The delay in contacting a veterinarian can make your horse severely sick.

1. Restless and Upset Horse

Like any human, we may see horses restless around their comfort zone when hit by any of the causes of colic. This sign may include denying to stand in a place for longer, trying to lie down, and excessive sweating without exercise.

A horse keeper can easily interpret from the abnormal behavior of the horse that everything isn’t fine. This sign is also common in any stress (transport, heat, confinement, etc.), so we must not deny the multiple etiologies for an early sign like this.

2. Sudden Decrease in Appetite

Ever seen your horse not eagerly waiting for their food? Compromised gut health may cause horses not eagerly waiting for their food. You will notice your horse avoiding food or not taking any food at all.

3. Passing less or No droppings

Decreased appetite and intestinal motility will cause the passing of hard feces or no feces at all. Owners should call a vet if a horse with inappetence doesn't poop, which is a sign of colic.

4. Stretching Out due to Abdominal Pain

You may observe a horse doing abnormal stretches because of abdominal pain. The horse stretches its forelimbs in front and hind limbs backward. This posture can be continuous or occasional, depending on the pain occurrence. The horse feels sometimes timely bouts of pain, followed by the disappearance of pain in between.

5. Kicking on the Belly

The horse looks towards the back or flank. As the pain increases, the horse tries to bite or kick the belly with the leg. This sign is peculiar to abdominal pain or gut discomfort and must be associated with other related early signs of colic to start the treatment.

6. Lying Down and Rolling

Horses lay down on their back on their ground more than usual and may show restless rolling on the belly. This may even cause external injury to the horse if it’s hard to control. The horse may also groan while rolling. Dog-like sitting posture is evident in colic, which is uncommon for a healthy horse. Apart from colic, the posture can be because of hind limb paralysis, which again is a matter of diagnosis.

7. Excess Sweating Without any Obvious Reason

Teeth grinding, quietness, or dull behavior in horses may show moderate-to-severe discomfort. Patchy sweating on a horse without physical activity may mean abdominal pain if other symptoms are also present.

8. Change in Water Intake

The horse may just lay down his head over the water container without drinking the water. The colic horse usually refuses to accept feed and water. If left untreated, this behavior can cause severe dehydration, and veterinarians must administer IV fluids.

9. Standing Against a Wall

Colic horses are reluctant to move and prefer leaning on a wall.

10. Clinical Signs of Colic in Horses

Clinical examination of a horse with colic may show signs like-

Increased heart rate.
Elevated pulse rate (greater than 52 per minute).
Rapid respiration rate.
Changed gum color.
Reduced bowel movements and gut sounds.
We often find hard feces in per-rectal examination in the rectum (in impaction colic because of excess dehydration).

Signs of Gas Colic in Horses

Gas colic, also called spasmodic colic, is common in horses. Gas colic is associated with the accumulation of gas in the intestine, which causes mild-to-moderate pain in horses.

Gas colic in horses can occur because of confinement, dehydration, less forage, ulcers, intestinal inflammation, and stress.

Early signs of gas colic are also similar to that of other colic signs in horses, which include:

  • Looking and biting at the belly.
  • Unable to pass the dropping or the little dropping comes with slime mucus.
  • Don’t take feed and water.
  • Stretching often, as if it is about to urinate.
  • Depressed and lethargic animal.
  • Continuously passing weight on different limbs or not standing still in the stable for long.
  • Increased heart, respiration, and pulse rates.

How to Prevent Colic in Horses?

Preventing colic is more effective than treating it. You can reduce the risk of colic in your horse by implementing the following measures:

  • Turnout your horse more towards pasture.
  • Availability of fresh water 24 hrs.
  • Avoid feeding horses on sandy ground.
  • Routine deworming is important to prevent excess parasite load.
  • Avoid adding extra grains or concentrate in the horse feed.
  • Monitor the horse carefully for colic signs.
  • Call the veterinarian immediately for corrective diagnosis and prevention.


Q 1: How does a horse react to colic?

Ans: A horse having colic, i.e., abdominal pain, behaves abnormally. It refuses food and water, sees and bites its flank, lay down on the ground often, rolls on its back, groans, and looks depressed.

Q 2: Does a horse with colic eat food?

Ans: The horse may start by neglecting food to complete inappetence in severe cases. You may contact your vet immediately and don’t offer any concentrate during this period.

Q 3: Does a horse with a colic walk?

Colic horses may and may not walk by their will. Earlier, walking may resolve colic to some extent. But if your horse is just sitting or leaning on a wall, don’t force it to walk.

Q 4: How to confirm if my horse has colic?

Ans: You must not ignore the early signs of colic in horses and call your vet immediately. Your vet will relate visible signs with the clinical parameters to give a confirmatory diagnosis and treatment of colic.


Colic signs in horses play an important role in diagnosing fatal diseases early. It prevents the horse from suffering and horse owners from losing their loved horses.

Signs of colic in horses include pawing, rolling, groaning, laying down, looking at their flank, kicking their belly, and becoming behind drained or depressed.

Horse owners must turn to their veterinarian for help. Also, owners can prevent the chances of the occurrence of disease by following simple management rules.


Dr Akanksha Agnihotri is another animal lover like you cum veterinarian by profession. She has earned her B.V.Sc & AH from COVS & AH, Jabalpur, India. She has a knack for befriending animals/pets and treating them compassionately. She believes...