Colic is a blanket definition for abdominal pain in horses. It can have many different triggers and is one of the most common causes of death in horses – in 2015, for example, German dressage star Isabell Werth’s retired grand prix dressage horse, Warum Nicht, died after suffering from a bout of colic. But there are also remarkable recovery stories; horses bouncing back from life-threatening surgery against the odds to win again.
Today, recovery is far more likely than it used to be, thanks to improvements in the way colic is diagnosed and treated.
There are many different types of colic, which can be caused by a variety of factors:
• Spasmodic colic: it occurs when the gut contracts painfully. One of the most common types of colic, it can happen when a horse is stressed or frustrated, as is thought to be the case with horses with vices, or when his diet changes dramatically. Worm damage — particularly a tapeworm infestation — can also cause the gut to spasm
• Impaction colic: the result of a blockage, it often happens when the hindgut cannot cope with an overload of food passing through it
• Colon torsion: this potentially fatal condition happens when a horse’s huge, horseshoe-shaped colon twists inside the abdomen. A torsion of more than 270 degrees will block blood supply, and will usually require surgery
Early diagnosis is crucial to a horse’s survival so look out for signs of colic. In a mild attack, a horse may curl his lips, be restless, turn his head to look at his flanks or paw the ground. In a moderate bout, the horse may keep trying to lie down and get up and try to urinate frequently. In the most severe cases, you may see rolling, sweating and an accelerated breathing rate.
• Feed your horse little and often with a high-quality, high-fibre diet
• Provide access to a clean, fresh water supply
• Turn out your horse in a paddock and avoid sudden increases in the time spent in the stables
• Make dietary, exercise and other changes gradually. In particular, avoid sudden changes in the amount of hay or haylage you feed to your horse
• Minimise the number of people involved in your horse’s care – recognising when a horse is looking and feeling below par is key
• Provide regular dental care
• Worm your horse regularly
More often than not need, colic needs urgent veterinary attention. If your horse only shows mild symptoms, you can try walking him around gently for no more than ten minutes (do not trot or canter). However, if he continues to be unwell, call your vet immediately.