Being horse-owners ourselves, we know when our horses are feeling at their best and can quickly spot when anything goes wrong. Our Horse Insurance team are always keen to learn more to help keep our horses happy and healthy.

With colic and digestive disorders being in the top three causes of claims for SEIB equine clients, we decided to find out more about colic and how it can affect our horses. Kindly, Imogen Burrows BVetMed CertAVP(EM) MRCVS stepped in with some excellent information and advice on what colic is and common causes of this often feared diagnosis.

Imogen has many years veterinary experience, she graduated from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), London in 2000 and was awarded RCVS Equine Medicine Advanced Practitioner status in 2014. She gained her Post Graduate Certificate in Veterinary Professional Studies and Stud Medicine Certificate in 2023. Whilst working full-time in first opinion equine practice, Imogen undertakes several other roles: VetGDP advisor, veterinary undergraduate teaching and examining, and RCVS Advanced Practitioner assessor. Imogen is British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Junior Vice President, Chair of the Ethics and Welfare Committee and member for the Education Committee. She is passionate about both education and improving standards of both clinical care and welfare in practice.

What is colic?

Colic is one of the most owner-feared diagnoses that can be made; however, what does having colic really mean?

Rather than being a diagnosis in its own right, ‘colic’ is actually a descriptive term, meaning abdominal pain. Horses may experience abdominal pain, or colic, for a variety of reasons, and ascertaining what creates this pain is the actual cause of the colic itself.

To complicate matters further, horses can only display pain in a limited number of ways, and colic-like signs (pawing, sweating, inappetence, flank watching, rolling, not wanting to move, or even constantly walking) can be demonstrated by horses that have pain originating from a different location. Examples of this include azoturia (tying up), in which the large muscle groups typically of the hind quarters and back are the source of pain; laminitis, which of course is associated with severe foot pain; or even pleuropneumonia (shipping fever) which causes severe chest pain. In these cases, the horse is said to be suffering from ‘false colic’.

What are the common causes of colic?

Fortunately, most true colic cases are termed ‘medical colic’. This is because, though varying in the degree of pain they express, they tend to be treated medically, often resolving after a single visit from the vet following thorough examination and administration of pain relief. Examples include tympanic (gassy) colic or spasmodic colic.

Other medical colics may require further visits, investigation or even a brief spell in a clinic or hospital before they can be fully resolved. These cases may include impactions of the large bowel or stomach or some large bowel displacements.

Recurrent colic may be more medically complex. Cases will tend to experience repeated single episodes in close succession, such as two or more colic episodes within a single month. Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome and inflammatory bowel disorders are examples of gastric problems that may result in recurrent colic.

In a small proportion of cases, horses may suffer from acute, unrelenting pain associated with problems that can only be resolved surgically. Examples include strangulating lesions or displacements.
Colic surgery is often unfairly assumed to have poor outcomes, but depending on the underlying cause, duration of colic and cardiovascular stability of the individual, outcomes are often much better than presumed.

What to do if a horse displays colic signs?

  1. Take a note of the time. The duration a horse has been colicking for is very useful information. This is often an estimated window from when the horse was last seen normal to when colic signs were first noted.
  2. Put the horse somewhere safe. Horses can become quite distressed during colic episodes and keeping them and you safe is vital. A stable with deep bedding, field or arena might all be suitable options depending on the degree of pain.
  3. Remove feed but allow water access. Don’t allow the horse to graze or eat feed/forage whilst they are displaying colic signs, until they have been assessed by a vet.
  4. Call the vet. Always ring for advice; early intervention is critical to obtaining the best outcome.
  5. To walk or not. Contrary to popular belief walking the horse is not mandatory and advice varies between vets. The benefits are that it may keep an agitated horse distracted and prevent it from injuring itself by repeated rolling. However, a horse should never be forced to walk. If the horse is quiet and calm, lying or standing, then leave them where they are. Take the lead from the horse.
  6. Don’t try to stop them rolling. Rolling is an expression of pain, and it can be very dangerous to yourself or other people nearby, to try and prevent a horse from rolling. Rolling is very unlikely to make the colic worse, and similarly, preventing them will not make it better. If they are happy walking as a distraction, that’s fine; but keep a safe distance from distressed horses.


Colic is a catch all term for pain, typically originating from the abdomen. Most cases are simple medical colics which respond to pain relief and often go formally undiagnosed. Recurrent, even low grade, colic episodes should be investigated, and early intervention will result in the shortest amount of distress and best outcome for both horse and owner.

Insurance cover for Colic Surgery

At SEIB, all three of our Horse Insurance policies offer optional cover for Colic Surgery. We’ve summarised below the cover available on each policy:

Classic Horse InsuranceOptional Colic Surgery cover up to £7,500 per claim
Core Horse InsuranceOptional Colic Surgery cover up to £5,000 per claim for horses aged under 15 years old
Veteran Horse InsuranceOptional Colic Surgery cover up to £1,500 per claim

To find out more, or to get a quote, please visit our Horse Insurance page.

Terms & Conditions apply. All policies are dependent on individual circumstances and subject to insurer requirements. Pre-existing conditions are subject to exclusions.

About SEIB

SEIB Insurance Brokers are specialists in insurance for Horses, Horsebox Insurance and Horse Trailer Insurance. We are able to provide flexible policies to suit individual client needs and provide advice on what cover is needed