Despite many years of research and development of new methods of diagnosing and treating colic, it remains a major cause of death in the horse. It is one of the few conditions in the horse that is a genuine emergency.

Most cases can be resolved relatively quickly with appropriate treatment, but some will be critical with potentially severe consequences. Conditions that affect the blood supply to the intestine become a race against time, and the earlier the problem is recognised and treated, the better the chance of survival.

What is colic?

Colic is used to describe clinical signs of abdominal pain or discomfort in the horse; hence colic is technically a symptom rather than being a disease in itself. Colic is the most common equine emergency and cause of death in horses worldwide. Colic can occur in any horse of any age and breed. Studies have identified an increased risk of colic occurring with a recent change in diet or housing, a history of previous colic, increasing age and the Arab breed. As colic is potentially life threatening it should be treated as an emergency in all instances, as any delay in diagnosis could affect the prognosis and potentially prolong pain and suffering.

There are many types of colic, each with varying severity and causes. Only a veterinary surgeon should diagnose the type of colic (by the completion of specific tests) and assess its seriousness.

Recognising the signs of colic

If you notice any change in your horses behaviour or your horse is showing signs of distress, think REACT. Even the most subtle changes could be the only sign from your horse indicating that there is a problem.

The five REACT signs are the most common and important indicators of colic (based on research from The University of Nottingham). The signs include:

Restless or Agitated

  • Attempts to lie down
  • Repeatedly rolling
  • Unexplained sweating
  • Box-walking or circling

Eating less or droppings reduced

  • Eating less or nothing at all
  • Passing fewer or no droppings
  • Changes in consistency of droppings

Abdominal Pain

  • Flank watching
  • Pawing
  • Kicking at belly

Clinical Changes

  • Increased heart rate
  • Reduced or absent gut sounds
  • Changes in colour of gums
  • Rapid breathing rate
  • Skin abrasions over the eyes

Tired or Lethargic

  • Lying down more than usual
  • Lowered down head position
  • Dull and depressed

Reducing the risk

Colic can occur at any time of the year in both grass-kept and stabled horses. Due to the many potential risk factors for colic there are plenty of simple steps that can be taken to help reduce the risk of it occurring.

Learn more about how to reduce the risk of Colic.

Download our leaflets

The British Horse Society and The University of Nottingham have produced a variety of leaflets discussing the wide range of issues related to colic. The information has been produced from the evidence, recommendations and involvement of veterinary surgeons, horse owners and original research conducted by The University of Nottingham.

Please read and download our leaflets for more further information.


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