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Always call the vet immediately if you’re suspecting a colic, before you do anything else.

Colic can strike any horse at any time. It is an umbrella term for “abdominal pain” that can have a wide variety of causes.

Most colics have to do with disturbances in the intestinal area: Bloating, massively disturbed peristalsis, constipation or positional changes where parts of the intestine are no longer where they belong and can therefore be cut off from the blood supply.

High-grade inflammation of the intestinal mucosa and sometimes stomach ulcers can also cause colic symptoms. Intestinal disorders often lead to pain, which can reflexively cause tightening of the abdominal muscles, which in turn can exacerbate colic problems.

Colic-like symptoms can also have other causes

There are colics that have nothing to do with the digestive tract but look symptomatically similar. These can be gynaecological problems, as almost every woman also knows from her own painful experience. Bladder stones or bladder emptying problems, kidney pain and many other causes are also possible.

The problem: you can’t tell what the cause is from the outside. Any symptoms that the horses show have more to do with the individual character of the horse than that one could conclude from them the cause of the colic. The severity of the symptoms says nothing about the cause or severity of the colic either.

That is why you should always inform the vet immediately, even if there are only minor signs. It is better to have the vet in the stable once too often and then pay for a false alarm than to overlook a severe colic – due to its outwardly mild symptoms – and lose the horse as a result.

In some cases of colic, literally every minute counts. Once the vet has been informed and is on his way, you can also organise a car and trailer to have them immediately ready in case of an emergency, should the vet decide that the horse needs to go to the clinic.

If you are too nervous yourself, it is better to have a stable mate or a friend drive the car. You don’t want to cause an accident due to being so worried about your darling.

But what can I do until the vet arrives at the stable?

Keep the horse warm, put on a fleece rug.

Many horses have a disturbed temperature regulation in a colic situation: everything from sweating to freezing is present, as well as rapid changes between the two. That’s exactly why every horse should have a fleece rug that can be used in these cases. If you don’t have a suitable fleece rug for your horse, putting a normal household blanket over the horse will do, too. Wool is ideal and, if necessary, you could also ‘sacrifice’ own favourite blanket that you keep in the car in winter for when you’re stuck in traffic for a while.

Keep your horse warm in an emergency with a rug © Bernd Kröger / Adobe Stock

Calm movement, walk your horse

Most colics have to do with disturbed digestion. Whether it’s gas, disturbed peristalsis or constipation, sometimes leading by hand is enough to get the circulation and peristalsis going to ease the cramps a bit or at least keep them from getting worse until the vet arrives. Colic is also a highly stressful situation for the horse, as it is a matter of life and death. Movement helps to regulate the stress hormones, helping very agitated horses to become calmer over time.

Calm movement keeps the ciruclation going
© Ingairis / Adobe Stock

Allow the horse to roll or lie down when it wants to.

In the past, this was not recommended because it was thought that rolling could cause the gut to twist (torsion colic). Today we know that many horses try to “push” an incorrectly positioned intestinal loop back into place by rolling. It is a fact that rolling does not cause torsion. So if the horse wants to roll, you should let it (please pay attention to your own safety, a long lead rope or a lunge line when leading ensures you can go back three steps, leaving the horse enough space and keeping your from getting tangled between the legs).

Even if the colicky horse wants to lie down in between, you should give let them have the rest. It can sometimes take quite a long time for the vet to arrive, especially because colic has a talent for occuring on holidays or Sunday evenings and the vet on duty has five emergencies to deal with at the same time. This is not laziness or ignorance on the part of the vet – they have to decide which horse needs help most urgently, the others have to wait – it’s like being in the emergency room of the hospital.

Colic saps the horses’ strength, so they are allowed to lie down from time to time. However, you should still motivate them to get up and walk around a bit to keep their circulation going.

Fact: rolling while colicking does not cause torsion.
© Nadine Haase / Adobe Stock

No food, no water

Even if you are tempted to hold a carrot under your horse’s nose every now and then to see if the horse might eat again: not a good idea! During a colic, neither food nor liquid can be transported properly. Especially if you offer something tasty, like mash, that your horse can’t resist and eats, you can make an existing colic much worse. You could even cause additional complications, like if the horse has to be operated on or if the vet cannot see whether there is reflux from the small intestine into the stomach.

Therefore, do not offer food or water, even if it takes longer for the vet to finally arrive on the farm. Everyone knows that in this situation, the waiting minutes seem to stretch into hours and you desperately want to do something. But the best thing you can do now is to walk with the horse, keep warm and stay calm yourself so that you don’t transfer your own stress to the horse.

Yes, you always feel terribly helpless with colic and would like to do more. Here are a few tricks that can help you get through the waiting time better or sometimes even relieve the symptoms:

For circulatory colic: caffeine

Circulatory colic can be recognised by the horse having pale mucous membranes and the capillary refilling time being prolonged. You can try this on a healthy horse or – if the horse is already in colic – first test it on another healthy horse: lift the lip sideways and press strongly against the mucous membrane of the mouth with your finger, saying “Mississippi” two or three times.

Let go and see how quickly the white/yellowish spot left behind turns pink again. You have pressed the blood out of the capillaries of the mucous membrane with your finger and it now flows back quickly as soon as you let go, usually in the time it takes to say “Mississippi” once or twice. If it takes longer, you can assume that the horse has circulation problems. These can be causative for the colic signs, especially often in older horses, former sport horses, weather changes or hot and humid weather.

Or the circulatory problem may be the result of the colic if it has been going on for some time. In the case of a delayed capillary refilling time, one can get the circulation going with caffeine. Therefore, every stable pharmacy should contain a few sticks of soluble coffee or espresso (not the caffeine-free variety, of course, but the normal one). Lift the lip, put in soluble coffee and rub it into the mucous membrane with your finger.

Caffeine is permeable to the mucous membrane, meaning it can be absorbed directly into the blood via the mucous membrane. As horses rarely drink coffee, they react sensitively to the caffeine boost and the circulation is stimulated. Please do not overdo it, the content of one stick (equivalent to a cup of coffee) is sufficient. The rest has to be done by the vet.

For spasmodic, gas or impaction colic: Swedish bitters

Of course, it is not possible to see from the outside what type of colic is present. However, according to studies, up to 80% of diagnosed colics are due to cramp conditions (White 1992), which is why antispasmodics given by the vet often work so well. Impaction colic is present in 20-50% of cases (e.g. Litzke et al. 1996, Cohen et al. 1996), although this can also be the result or cause of cramps, so there is a clear overlap here. Impaction colic is not uncommon, especially in winter. Gas colic, which can also lead to cramps, is often accompanied by a bloated abdomen and occurs more frequently in horses prone to flatulence.

If a circulatory colic can be ruled out (check capillary refilling time), the horse can be given Swedish bitters as an immediate measure. They should be a staple in any stable pharmacy and are an old household remedy for colic. The alcohol has a muscle-relaxing effect, causing the cramps to subside, and the bitter substances stimulate peristalsis. It doesn’t take much, a shot glass full of schnapps in an oral syringe (without a cannula!) is sufficient

The alcohol is permeable to the mucous membrane, making it enter the bloodstream still in the mouth, and thus taking effect relatively quickly. Here again, the rule is: give in careful doses, do not overdo it. If the amount of a shot glass does not have any effect, it will not get better if you pour in the whole bottle, on the contrary. But giving a small amount is worth a try. Afterwards, continue to lead the covered horse so that the peristalsis is stimulated even further by the movement and the circulation is kept going. In many cases, it at least gives the horse some relief until the vet arrives. Given in such a small amount, this measure does not interfere with the subsequent veterinary therapy.

Relaxing the colon via TCM alarm points

Most colics are associated with disturbances in the large intestine. According to Chinese medicine, it is possible to exert a targeted influence via the meridian or via individual points. The easiest point for the layman to find is the alarm point, which has a direct correspondence with the large intestine. It’s located on the belly, a hand’s breadth in front of the knee, at the end of the inguinal fold.

If you look at your horse from the side, you will see a small fold of skin running forward from the stifle, where the hind leg joins the body. Reach behind this skin fold with your hand and pull it outwards a little. The colon alarm point is where the fold “disappears” into the abdomen, on both sides of the body. There are different methods to treat the point. The simplest is to keep it warm, for example by holding a warm cherry stone pillow or hot water bottle on it (watch the temperature!). As every woman knows, warmth has a relaxing effect on muscle cramps.

You can also work with coloured light, especially calming colours like green, turquoise or blue, if you have a coloured lamp at hand. If you often treat your horse to a “wellness day”, you may have moxa rolls in your stable cupboard. Moxibustion is an excellent way to treat the large intestine alarm point because the heat penetrates very deeply. If you don’t have any of this handy, you can at least massage the point gently with your hand in a clockwise direction.

Wait for the vet

Otherwise, wait patiently until the vet comes and then inform him systematically and calmly about everything:

  • How was the colic diagnosed (symptoms)?
  • How long has the horse been colicky?
  • Has the horse pooed since you made the call? If yes, how often? Are the piles rather normal or different than usual (smaller, drier, smelly…)?
  • Has the behaviour changed since the phone call, if yes: what?
  • What measures were taken during the waiting period? (Rugging, walking, caffeine or Swedish bitters given?)
  • Did these have an effect, if yes: what happened?
  • Has the horse had colic before, if so: what forms? When were the colics? How were they treated?
  • Has the horse had surgery for colic before?

The veterinarian will then examine the horse and decide on further treatment in the stable. If necessary, your horse will need to be transported to the nearest equine clinic. You should trust the veterinarian’s judgement here. They see many horses with colic every day and usually have more knowledge and experience than most horse owners.