What is colic? Causes, Signs and Management

In its simplest sense colic is abdominal pain, with episodes ranging in severity from the very mild to life threatening. In general many cases of colic can be classified as one of the following types:


  • Impaction - a blockage in the intestine
  • Spasmodic - increased intestinal contractions
  • Tympanitic (gaseous) -a build-up of gas in the intestine 
  • Sand colic - impaction or inflammation caused by the ingestion of sand
If you require further information on colic in horses and the causes, signs (symptoms) and management, contact our nutritionist team here. We can offer tailored support and have many suitable feeds to help.




  • What are the signs?
      • Looking at or kicking the abdomen
      • Pawing at the ground
      • Rolling
      • Box walking
      • Changes in the frequency and/ or consistency of droppings
      • Sweating
      • Increased temperature, pulse and respiration rates
      • Loss of appetite or refusal to eat or drink

    Seek veterinary advice if you suspect your horse or pony may have colic.

  • Who is at risk?

    Colic can affect any horse or pony at any time, even those managed under optimum conditions. Whilst the exact relationship between diet and colic can be difficult to determine, risk factors include:

    • High starch/ cereal diets
    • Low forage diets
    • Mature hay/ haylage or straw (particularly in those prone to impactions)
    • Reduced water intake
    • Changes in routine
    • Poor teeth
    • Mouldy feed/ forage
    • Limited grazing (although grazing may be a risk factor in some cases i.e. duodenitis-proximal jejunitis)
    • Crib-biting/ windsucking
    • Stress
  • How nutrition plays a role

    Nutritional management of horses and ponies prone to colic should focus on providing a high fibre diet alongside controlled levels of Non-Structural Carbohydrate (NSC). Put simply NSC is the sum of starch, sugar and fructan, the storage form of sugar in plants and forages.

    • Base as much of the diet on good quality forage as possible
    • A balancer is the ideal way to provide additional vitamins, minerals and quality protein for those able to maintain weight on forage alone
    • Avoid high starch/ cereal based feeds, particularly in large quantities. When fed, divide into as many small meals as possible.
    • Ideally feed less than 1g starch per kilogram of bodyweight per meal - speak to a nutritionist for more advice
    • Choose fibre based feeds - when higher levels of energy (calories) are required feeds high in oil provide a sympathetic alternative to cereal starch
    • Do not feed mouldy feed or forage
    • Make all changes gradually - as a general guide, replace no more than 500g of current/ old feed for 500g of new feed every other day for horses, less for ponies. More gradual changes may be required for particularly animals
    • Feed small meals - a maximum of 2kg per meal for horses, less for ponies
    • Provide access to clean fresh water at all times
    • Oil can be added at a rate of up to 100mls per 100kg of bodyweight per day if additional energy (calories) is required. However simply adding oil over the top of your horse's current ration may unbalance the diet so you may wish to consider moving to a feed that already contains a higher level oil and is suitably balanced with vitamin E.
    • Add any additional oil gradually and ensure the diet provides an additional 100iu of vitamin E for every 100mls of oil fed - speak to a nutritionist for more advice on this.
    • Pro and prebiotic supplements may help to support gut health in some horses
  • Forage
    • Provide ad-lib forage where ever possible
    • Do not restrict forage intake to less than 15g per kilogram of bodyweight per day dry matter. In practise this equates to approximately 18g of hay or 20-24g of haylage per kilogram of bodyweight per day in horses or ponies without access to grazing - speak to a nutritionist for more advice.
    • Feed good quality forage - in one study 30% of the hays fed to horses that developed colic were of low hygienic quality compared to only 4% in control horses
    • Avoid mature hay and straw, particularly in thoroughbreds and individuals prone to impactions. If fed, remove seed heads and ideally include at less than 30% (DM) of the total forage ration
    • Make all changes in forage gradually where ever possible, ideally over a 2-3 week period. Changing hay (within 2 weeks prior) was seen to increase the risk of colic by almost 5 times in on study and almost 10 times in another
    • In general, access to grazing seems advantageous. In one study horses with less than 50% turnout were 4.5 times more likely to suffer an episode of colic.
    • Avoid high levels of alfalfa for horses prone to enterolithiasis (intestinal stones)
  • Sand Colic

    The ingestion of some sand is inevitable for horses grazing on sandy pasture although feeding from buckets, mangers and hay nets may help to limit intake. A psyllium husk supplement may also help to manage/ prevent the build-up of sand in the digestive system - speak to a nutritionist for more advice.

  • Colic Surgery

    Colic surgery is a delicate procedure and careful post-operative management is vital. Always seek advice from a nutritionist before implementing a diet.