Physical examination

There are many different causes of colic, and therefore a systematic examination of various body systems may be required. Approach to physical examination will vary depending on the patient’s history and presentation, the facilities available and any safety concerns. This page presents the aspects of physical examination which veterinary surgeons considered to be most important on the primary assessment of horses presenting with colic.

Basic clinical examination

The minimum primary recommended assessment in every case should include measurement of:


Cardiovascular status

Alimentary system


Respiratory system


Recommendations are based on outcomes from the consensus process and from two studies that evaluated which aspects of initial case presentation were associated with outcomes.

It is NOT an exhaustive list of all components of physical examination, but instead highlights which aspect vets considered to be the most important (assessments in each category are listed with those with highest consensus ranking first).

Sources of evidence

Prospective study of the primary evaluation of 1016 horses with clinical signs of abdominal pain by veterinary practitioners, and the differentiation of critical and non-critical cases.

Early indicators of ‘critical’ outcomes in horses presenting with abdominal pain (colic): retrospective study of ‘out of hours’ first opinion emergency cases from two practices over a three year period (2011-2013). [Unpublished data from A Bowden PhD thesis]

There is no level 1 or 2 evidence on the primary assessment of colic in the horse. The recommendations are based on outcomes of multi-disciplinary workshops and surveys of owners and veterinary practitioners with experience of colic. Statements were voted on by vets with experience of colic, accepted if >75% agreement on statements.

Physical examination 1 - printable

Physical examination 2 - printable