Colic: What You Need to Know


Colic. It’s a word that stops every horse person in their tracks regardless of breed or discipline. We’ve all been affected by colic, in one way or another. Whether it was a scare, a close call, or even losing a horse to it, colic is a word that sits heavy with all equestrians.

As the leading natural cause of death in horses, colic grabs attention. According to an American Association of Equine Practitioners stat in SmartPak's Colic Resource Center, more than 700,000 horses will colic this year in the US alone. The good news is the majority of these cases can be easily treated without costly or invasive surgery if detected early. However, because horses are largely unsupervised overnight, signs of colic distress are usually not observed until the morning when feeding rolls around, and by then it may be at an advanced stage. Ask any vet and they will tell you the 6:00 to 7:00 am hour is one of their busiest times because that is when they receive many phone calls and admit horses to their clinic for colic.

According to PetMD, colic is most easily recognizable by the following symptoms:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Looking at the flank
  • High pulse
  • Lack of defecation and urination

Any of these symptoms, coupled with any other abnormal behavior indications, warrant a call to your vet. It’s important to know what is and what’s not normal for your horse, so establishing a “normal” baseline for your horse can make all the difference. While waiting for the vet, keep your horse comfortable. Don’t try to walk your horse unless they are attempting to lay down and roll. Allowing them to lay down is fine, but letting them roll in search of relief could twist the intestines and cause irreparable damage.

Depending on the severity of the case, your vet may elect to perform colic surgery. While only a small percentage of colic cases need surgery, there isn’t another alternative for said cases. The Eq Group estimates that colic surgery costs can range from $5,000 to $10,000 depending on the severity of colic and overall health of the horse. It’s a big number and a lot to think through and usually with little time to do so. Colic surgery is a massive decision, both financially and emotionally, and seeing your horse in intense pain with the only alternative being euthanasia adds additional stress.

If surgery is elected, that’s only half the battle. The days following for recovery are crucial. Preventing infection and keeping the horse calm to heal immediately after major abdominal surgery aren’t easy tasks. Assuming there are no complications, patients are usually sent home from the veterinary hospital after 7 days of continuous monitoring. However, the road to recovery does not end there because once home, horses must be confined for at least 8 weeks while their incision heals, which is a further stressful time for both horse owners and their horses.

Due to new technology and ongoing research, the prognosis for horses who undergo emergency colic surgery has increased greatly in recent years. And, while there is still some risk to surgery, it’s important to know what your decision is before you get put in the position to make it. Having an emergency plan will give you peace of mind and clarity in a stressful situation.

What if surgery wasn’t your only option? What if we could catch colic early enough to avoid surgery altogether? That’s where the NIGHTWATCH® smart halter comes in. This early-warning system learns your horse’s “normal” biometrics (ie, vital signs) and behaviors (ie, activity, posture, motion), and then alerts you if distress, such as colic, is suspected so you can intervene sooner. No more staying-up late worrying or staring at a stall camera. NIGHTWATCH® offers you peace of mind and the opportunity to get more sleep.

Our horses work hard for us, and we work hard for them. Now is the time to be there for them even when you can’t be—it could save their life.