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


Abdomen or Belly seems Rigid, Painful to Pressure


Horses experiencing various illnesses, injuries, or abdominal pain (colic) may "splint" their abdomen. Their belly may appear tucked up and rigid, "drawn up" or distended. The abdominal wall may feel hard to the touch. Pressure with fingers or a hand may cause the horse to grunt, kick, move away, or withdraw in pain.

Taken alone, with no other sign of illness or injury this finding may not be that significant. Keep in mind that horses can learn an evasion response to being touched around the flank and mislead their owners into thinking they are in pain. If seen in combination with other findings though, especially colic, poor appetite or depression, it can be very significant.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If you notice signs of colic, along with this sign.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

your role


What To Do

Assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to attitude and appetite, the presence of colic signs, heart rate, hydration and gut sounds. Also carefully assess the area itself. Maybe there is a traumatic injury or other local problem there. Gently feel the belly looking for injury, swelling or a pain response.

Compare the feel of the abdomen on left and right sides. Differentiate an evasion response from true pain by keeping your hand pressure there even if the horse withdraws, and only remove it when they yield (stop and accept the touch). Feel the muscles along the back looking for soreness, stiffness or swelling. Lead the horse and turn it both ways at the walk, looking for any deviation from normal movement. Share your findings and concerns with your vet.

your vet's role

Your vet will evaluate general health, looking for underlying causes for this finding. They will also carefully evaluate the abnormal area as well, hopefully separating a behavioral problem from a physical one.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • When did you first notice this?
  • When did you last notice that your horse was ok?
  • Is the horse showing any signs of abdominal pain (colic)?
  • How is your horse's attitude and appetite?
  • Will the horse walk freely in hand or do they resist?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • Does the horse show pain when pressure is applied to the area?
  • If you turn the horse sharply each way at the walk, does it seem to walk normally?
  • Is there digital pulse or heat in foot or feet?

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
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Treatments Your Vet May Recommend

A way to resolve the condition or diagnosis. Resolving the underlying cause or treating the signs of disease (symptomatic treatment)

Very Common
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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP