Spasmodic colic: how to spot it and ways to help your horse

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    This article has been edited and approved by Karen Coumbe MRCVS, H&H’s veterinary advisor since 1991.
  • Spasmodic colic in horses is the most common type of colic seen and is caused when the normal internal movement within the gut (peristalsis) is interrupted. It is often, but not only, seen in the spring or after owners moved their horses to new lush grazing. The horse typically shows periods of intense pain, interspersed by periods where they are more comfortable.

    Spasmodic colic in horses: signs | treatment | causes | how to avoid | prognosis

    Signs of spasmodic colic in horses

    • Lying quietly with a lack of interest in their surroundings
    • Pawing the ground
    • Curling the top lip
    • Straining when trying to urinate
    • Looking back at the flank
    • Sweating
    • Increase in gut sounds
    • Increase in heart and respiration rate
    • Droppings may continue to be passed

    How to treat it

    If your horse shows some of these signs, call your vet promptly, who will be able to diagnose based on a clinical examination. In most cases your vet will be able to treat a spasmodic colic medically by providing pain relief and antispasmodic drugs to help the gut regain its normal motility. If treated rapidly, theses cases rarely need referring to an equine hospital for treatment.

    Many cases are diagnosed based on response to treatment, in that if a spasmodic colic continues and does not respond to routine medical treatment, there is more likely to be something underlying and further investigations are required. If a colic recurs or does not settle, talk to your vet again.

    In some cases, gentle walking may help, but a horse should not be forced to walk if reluctant to do so. Food should be withheld until the horse has recovered and then reintroduced gradually based on your vet’s advice.

    Causes of spasmodic colic

    While the cause of many spasmodic colics remains unidentified, changes to the horse’s eating habits, particular the introduction of lush, fresh grass in to the diet, is a common reason. Other dietary changes, such as access to significant numbers of apples or carrots, can cause the gut to become overactive, leading to pain.

    Changes to a horse’s normal routine such as heavy exercise in a horse that is unfit, transporting a horse that finds the experience stressful, or other sudden management changes can also cause interruption to the normal gut movement and risk triggering a spasmodic colic episode.

    Worm burdens, particularly significant tapeworm infections have also been found to lead to an increased risk of both spasmodic colic and hind gut obstructions1,2.

    In many cases, we do not know what is the cause of a colic is that responds to medical treatment and thankfully resolves without further treatment.

    Ways to avoid spasmodic colic

    • Ensure new or lush pasture is introduced gradually, by restricting the time your horse is in the field, while supplementing his diet with hay
    • Make any changes to the horse’s diet gradually over a period of at least three to four days
    • Manage parasites effectively by testing frequently and providing targeted treatment where a burden is identified
    • Ensure the horse is not exercised beyond the level it is fit to do so
    • Avoid exposing the horse to stressful experiences


    Most spasmodic colic cases are resolved medically and do not reoccur if management changes are put in place to reduce access to high-risk situations. When a horse does suffer repeated bouts of spasmodic colic then further investigation should take place to try to identify the potential cause of the problem.


    1. Tapeworm infection is a significant risk factor for spasmodic colic and ileal impaction colic in the horse – May 1998
    2. Investigation of an outbreak of tapeworm-associated colic in a training yard – June 2000

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