What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Horse Found Dead, Recently Seemed Healthy


You visit your horse's stable and are shocked to find them lying dead. You saw them 12 hours ago and they seemed fine. What should you do now?

There are relatively few conditions that have the potential to kill a seemingly healthy horse in 12 hours. In most cases, traumatic injuries that are severe enough to kill a horse quickly involve the brain, spinal cord, heart, or massive blood loss.

The most common causes of rapid death relate to the intestinal tract. Large colon volvulus (a "twisted gut"), can kill a horse in just a few hours. Intestinal rupture (stomach rupture) also causes rapid onset of shock and death.

When intestinal crises are the cause of death, they are usually accompanied by abdominal pain (colic), so signs of a struggle are evident. In most cases, the horse's face will be swollen and bruised, especially around the eyes, from rolling and thrashing. There are often areas of hair loss or even fresh wounds that evidence a struggle.

Other likely causes of sudden death relate to the horse's history and type. For example, older horses tend to suffer from fatal bleeding into the abdomen from tumors. Strangulating lipoma is an example of an intestinal crisis that is much more common in older horses.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • A post-mortem exam (necropsy) may help to identify the cause of death.
    • If you are concerned that your other horses may be in danger.
  • Code Green

    Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources
    • You are not concerned and perceive that other horses are not at risk.

your role


What To Do

To protect the body until examination or removal, cover the horse with a well-secured tarp. Wear gloves when handling or working around the body.

What Not To Do

Do not handle a mysteriously dead horse without wearing gloves and using great caution. Rabies is a rare but potentially transmissible disease.

your vet's role

I strongly recommend that your vet perform a necropsy or post-mortem exam. Without an examination, they may only be able to speculate as to the cause of death. Ideally, this is done soon after death. For suspected intestinal causes (colic), exploration of the abdomen through a relatively small incision may be all that is required.

For complete diagnosis, tissue samples may need to be collected and sent to a laboratory for examination. A definitive diagnosis is not always reached, even with a thorough examination of the whole horse. However, a post-mortem provides the best chance to make a diagnosis, and to acquire knowledge that could benefit your other horses in the future.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • When did you last think your horse seemed normal?
  • Where, geographically, does the horse live?
  • Has the horse been in contact with new horses recently?
  • Does the horse live with or near other horses?
  • Is it possible your horse has had exposure to a toxic substance?
  • Has the horse received any medications or new feeds or supplements?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, and breed?
  • Do you see signs that the horse struggled?
  • Do all of the other horses seem normal?
  • Where was the horse when it died?
  • Has the horse recently been exercised?
  • Does the horse have a history of episodes of colic?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
more diagnoses

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP