22 Horse colic symptoms you need to know

Today I write with a heavy heart as my little quarter horse mare Chilli, lost her battle with gastric distension colic.

Gastric distension colic also known as grain engorgement or stomach distension, and is life threatening. So I want to share with you the specific horse colic symptoms you need to know if you are faced with gastric distension, and in this case it was due to consumption of excess raw barely grain.

How did this tragedy happen so quickly? Well, simply a person with good intentions fed barley to my sheep, except the grain was distributed right along side the fence line, and without my knowledge. Unfortunately my horse Chilli could reach the barley by putting her head over the fence and gorged herself on the grain. It happened that easily.

Horse colic symptoms you need to know

vet checking for horse colic symptomsThe best thing you can do for your horse once you suspect they have colic is to be extra observant, as these health changes for better or worse, can be crucial towards your horses treatment and recovery. You are normally the best person to observe the behaviour, as you understand your horses normal behaviour and will instantly know as if by instinct when your horse is acting outside of his normal character.

Following is a general list of horse colic symptoms that range from mild to severe, and it’s worth keeping in mind that mild cases of colic can increase in pain severity and become severe symptoms. The reason horses show these symptoms when experiencing colic is because the horse is trying to relieve the pain in their gut any way they can.

If during a bout of colic and your horses symptoms worsen, then contact your vet immediately. Remember to act quickly with colic and call your vet whilst your horse is experiencing mild signs for the best outcome. The good news is generally most types of colic are treatable.

Mild signs of colic

  • horse colic symptomsPawing the ground
  • Awkward stretching
  • Shivering with pain
  • Moving reluctantly
  • Laying down and getting up repeatedly
  • Restlessness
  • Standing as if to urinate
  • Laying down more than usual
  • Hanging head low to the ground
  • Turning to look at their tummy
  • Kicking at their stomach
  • Not interested in food or water
  • Unusual behaviour or signs unusual to your horses normal character

Signs of severe colic

  • Rollinghorse colic symptoms - rolling
  • Sweating
  • Sitting like a dog
  • laying on their back
  • Red coloured gums
  • High heart rate
  • Groaning and pawing the ground
  • Gurgling noises from nostrils
  • Lifting up their top lip often

If you notice a horse displaying any one of these signs, observe the horse closely and monitor it for other indicators, if colic is suspected contact your vet immediately.

Feed that can lead to colic in horses

  • Mouldy hay
  • Straight grain – barley is the worst offender
  • Sudden change from one feed to another
  • Lawn clippings
  • Over feeding proteins, grains or lush grass

It is important to note that other factors can lead to colic such as heavy worm infestations, teeth problems, change in stable bedding, change in your horses exercise level, poor or irregular water quality, sudden change in weather conditions, inconsistent feeding methods and of course rapid change of diet.

The horse is an amazing animal, but unfortunately it has a poorly designed digestive system, also know and the gut. The good thing is that most horse colic can be treated relatively easily and generally with a good outcome, however in some severe cases horses will die from colic. The message is to act early when signs of colic occur in your horse, and this gives them the best change for a full recovery.

Vet Dr Steve Allday explains Horse Colic

How you can help your vet!

In cases of colic in horses which are grain related, as I am speaking about from personal experience, I cannot stress strongly enough for you to contact your vet immediately if you suspect this has happened to your horse.

When I first contacted the vet, I rang up and said my horse has colic, now think for a second about what I said. How many times in a year would a vet hear the words, my horse has colic? If you answered lots, then you are correct. It is really important to give your vet the best detailed description of your horses symptoms. If you don’t the vet will not be able to rate the real level of your emergency. Vets need to be able to prioritise call outs, as they are normally very busy through out the day.

Some good observations

  • Check the colour of your horses gums, are they normal for your horse? Paler or darker than normal?

Why you might ask? This is important for the vet to know as the more detailed description of the gum colour you are seeing, will help  your vet see the health of your horse over the phone.

  • Has you horse passed a bowel movement? if so describe exactly what you have seen, the colour, texture, is it solid or runny?
  • How much water has your horse drunk?
  • Do you know what your horses heart rate is?
  • What is your horses pain level?

Colic danger signs – call vet immediately!

  • Sunken eyes
  • Lack of elasticity in the skin – a sign of dehydration
  • No bowel movements
  • Constant swelling of the abdomen
  • High heart rate, that sounds like the gut noises
  • Horse is showing further discomfort aggravated by increased pain
  • Unpleasant coloured discharge coming from horses nose
  • A sudden change in noises coming from the horse

If you are in doubt at any stage whist your horse has colic, make a phone call to your vet with the specific symptoms, the more observant you are the better the vet can help you. It is very important to contact the vet if you horses abdomen is constantly swelling and the horse is not producing any bowel movements, these changes in horse colic symptoms can occur rapidly, and euthanasia will need to be considered if the horse has no chance of recovery. You will need to act quickly for your horses sake. When a horse cannot be saved, its important to get the vet there ASAP as the horses stomach will rupture due to the build up of excessive gases. Euthanase before this point, if you can.

I had an exceptional country vet visit Chilli on three occasions over a 5 hour period, and the last time was to euthanise her.

Keeping horses away from access to self service grain is of course the best solution as in my case, yet sometimes accidents happen.

I wish you the best with your horse care and your horses health. Let me know if this information has helped you in any way, as I am sharing my experience so someone else can possibly avoid this situation from happening to them.

Enjoy your horses!Horse Care Enthusiast

Sue-Ellen :-)

Horse Care Enthusiast

About Sue-Ellen Cordon

Sue -Ellen Cordon is an avid horse enthusiast who loves to share horse knowledge, so people can enjoy their horses more. The creator of Complete Horse Care and author of 12 Ways to save yourself a bucket load of cash, money saving free report with simple practical tips!


  1. Very sorry to hear of your bereavement. It doesn’t matter what size your pet is, they always own a large part of your heart. My condolences

  2. I am so sorry to hear about your mare Chilli! But it always good to learn from experiences, and this information will help many others learn from your experience and hopefully be able to conduct early detection to prevent the worst! I always think that our animal friends can never live as long as we do because they have souls which are just too nice and happy to stay here as long as we do! All animals are beautiful, and with time Im sure there will be space for another special member in your family!

    • Hi Tegan,

      Thank you for your kind words and Yes, its a very traumatic experience to go through when you know you can’t save your beautiful horse friend. That is why, like you say Tegan, early detection really does give a horse with colic the best change of survival. Colic is something all horse owners are faced with during our relationship with horses, and luckily the survival rate is very good generally. Education, understanding and prevention methods to minimise the risks are key factors to know.

      with gratitude


  3. That is so sad to hear, poor little mite. I did not know horse colic was so serious. Hope your article helps to educate other horse owners of the seriousness of colic and prevents more tragedies.

    • Hi Kerry
      There are highs and lows of owning horses, and colic is a part of horse care. Education and awareness can equip horse owners with powerful knowledge that could one day save the life of a horse.
      I still have my faithful horse Charlie who is 15 years old, and acts like a two year old, so I can still enjoy the pleasures of horses :)


  4. Sorry to hear the sad news Sue-ellen,

    It is a very distressing condittion in humans but thank the Lord not fatal.
    Quarter horses are such beautiful and intelligent animals.
    I wish you every blessing for Christmas

    Doctor Bill

  5. Thanks Sue-Ellen for sharing this information on horse colic symptoms. I’m so sorry to hear your sad news, I’m sure it’s not been easy to write about your experience, however I’m sure it will help many others to recognize the symptoms they need to be aware of in order to prevent the same thing happening.

    • Hi Hilary,
      It sure wasn’t easy to write the article, however I thought it was so very important to share my experience to help other people be aware of the dangers of rupture colic.
      We all get attached to our pets no matter how large or small :)


  6. Oh gosh I never realised how serious Colic was for a horse. I am so sorry that Chilli had to experience the effects of colic, and I am so sorry that you had to have Chilli put to sleep.
    There seems to be no words to say.
    My heart breaks while I am reading your story.
    May Chilli Rest in peace for ever more, and may your story save another horse from the symptoms of colic.

    Lisa xxx

    • Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for your support, yes Chilli is resting in peace and I will be planting a stand of native trees over her resting place in August, so many other animals can enjoy the shaded area. Chilli’s first love was food, and her second love was to stand with one leg resting as she enjoyed the shady trees in my front paddock. She will be fondly remembered :)

      with gratitude

  7. I’m so sorry to hear about your beloved Chilli. From one who knows nothing about horses I had no idea colic was such a problem and could be fatal. Than you for your comprehensive article explaining the dangers.

    • Hi Jenny,
      Not all colic is so dangerous, however when horses eat too much grain, sometimes there is no way to save them. The good news is some types of colic are treatable, and the outcome is good.
      It is important for non horse people to know the dangers also, because you too could help to save a horse by knowing the symptoms and alerting the owners if you notice the signs. You never know when this knowledge may come in handy :)


  8. Sorry to hear about Chili. I haven’t been around horses much. I did take lessons when I was a teenager and I have always loved horses. My husband and I are fencing off a pasture and we are getting a couple beef cows and a horse. We have two goats now and some chickens. I’ve been reading up on horse care and after reading your article, I must admit that I’m really nervous about getting a horse. I love them so much. I love to groom them, watch them, ride them, and even talk to them. I hope and pray that I can care for one.

    • Hello Ketti,

      Thanks for your compassion. It sounds like you have a little farm yard full of animals, what a great lifestyle :).
      Horses are a big responsibility that is for sure, they are also generally very forgiving when we are learning. I have owned horses for over 30 years and in all of that time Chilli was the first horse I lost, the others died of old age and one is still going strong at 32 years!
      The best way to look after any animals is to be observant, if you suspect they are not looking themselves investigate the situation, and you will catch small problems early and in most cases your animal will be fine.
      Ketti as you learn more your confidence will grow with your horse care. The benefits of horses far out way the fear factor, and you will be amazed at how much enjoyment will come from owning a horse.
      If you have questions along the way you can email me Sue-Ellen@completehorsecare.com

      Keep learning and enjoy the ride :)


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