Types of Colic in Horses

types of colic in horses

Types of Colic in Horses

Here we review the types of colic in horses; Spasmodic/Idiopathic Colic, impaction colic, and Displacements, Torsions and Strangulations.

Colic Overview

Equine Colic is actually a relatively common disorder affecting the horse and can occur at any time for a plethora of reasons.

Colic is not a specific disorder, but instead, a general term describing ‘abdominal discomfort’. Although colic usually occurs from discomfort originating from the gastro-intestinal tract, it can also be due to pain from other abdominal organs such as the kidney, liver or uterus, this is termed ‘false colic’. In addition ‘tying up’ (exertional rhabdomyolysis), laminitis and even foot abscesses can incur similar symptoms.

Colic can appear at different times of the year in all horses, no matter what the age, breed or discipline – however, poor condition can predispose the horse to the problem.


As mentioned above, different colic types cover a number of abdominal disturbances but it is often discussed as either ‘medical’ i.e. that which can be corrected without the need for surgery, and ‘surgical’ that requires surgery to correct.

Spasmodic/Idiopathic Colic

One of the most common types of colic that we come across in practice is Spasmodic/Idiopathic Colic. Caused by abnormal contractions of the bowel, it is often described as ‘overactive guts’ which results in painful contractions. It can be due to a number of factors including diet alterations, changes in the grass, recent worming and even things such as weather or stressful situations. It usually responds well to anti-spasmodic drugs such as Hyoscine Butylbromide (‘Buscopan’) sometimes in combination with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as Phenylbutazone (‘Bute’).

Impaction Colic

Usually, but not exclusively impaction colic is found in the large intestine. Impactions are firm blockages of food that your horse is unable to move through the system. This type of colic usually results from horses that eat their bedding i.e straw, having a reduced fluid intake or reduced movement – therefore this is a type of colic to look out for when horses are on box rest but can also occur at other times such as, during travel.

Generally, impaction colic can be corrected medically by the administration of fluids, either via a nasogastric tube or intravenously (‘dripping’) combined with pain relief. When the horse passes waste, the symptoms and problem normally dissolve, however, more severe impactions can require surgery.

Displacements, Torsions and Strangulations

When a unit of bowel travels to an abnormal location within the abdomen of the horse we refer to it as displaced. Torsions occur when the gut twists on itself (often referred to as a ‘twisted gut) and strangulation occurs if the blood supply to a portion of the gut gets cut off. These are relatively uncommon types of colic but are very serious, with the need for immediate veterinary attention.


Occasionally displacements can be corrected medically but severe displacements and all strangulations and torsions require surgery to correct.

Next – What to do if you suspect colic …

With thanks to Merete Hass BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS, Equine Vet at Hampton Veterinary Centre, Malpas, Cheshire

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Author: Suzanne Ashton Founder, Everything Horse Ba Hons Marketing Management email: contact@everythinghorseuk.co.uk

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