Sand Colic in Horses
Talking about sand conjures up a variety of peaceful images – children’s sandboxes, warm beaches on vacation, and the peaceful trickle of sand in an hourglass. That said, for horse owners, the word “colic” is probably the most loaded and terrifying word that can be imagined. A generic word for a stomachache, colic can mean life-ending complications or crippling medical bills. Horses have sensitive digestive tracts, and the slightest things can set them off, causing a colic episode. One of these things is sand.
What is Sand Colic?
Most horses have some degree of sand in their guts, especially if they graze on pasture or if they live in a dry, sandy climate. Young horses (foals, weanlings, and yearlings) who are apt to explore everything with their mouths, tend to have a slightly higher risk and tendency to ingest sand and get colic. Otherwise, just like some people have more sensitive stomachs than others, some horses seem more able to process and pass sand from their digestive systems than others. Others seem to get sand colic more easily.
Sand colic occurs when horses ingest sand and it builds up in their guts. Some sand is able to be passed through with no problem, but sometimes the sand stays behind. When the sand stays behind, it irritates the intestines and sometimes can cause a blockage. Either of these things can cause colic.
If your horse shows signs of colic, your vet can diagnose it as sand colic in a couple of different ways. The first way is the least invasive: looking around the horse’s eating area and seeing if he is eating on sandy, dusty ground. If he is showing symptoms of colic and eats on sandy, dusty ground, then the odds are good that he has sand colic. Sand is also visible on ultrasounds and X-rays (though adult horses are often too large to X-ray feasibly outside of a clinic setting). A vet can also palpate (feel) inside a horse’s rectum, and some horses have so much sand in their entire digestive tract, that it can be felt there. A less ideal method is an abdominocentesis, where a vet sticks a needle into the digestive tract of the horse, and sand can be felt there. Most vets do not recommend this method, however.
If your horse has sand colic and there is no impaction, your vet will most likely prescribe psyllium, or metamucil, which is a laxative. This binds the sand together and allows the horse to pass it more easily. If the sand has formed an impaction, however, surgery is most likely required.
If you live in a sandy climate and are worried about your horse’s risk of sand colic, there is a way to determine if he is ingesting too much sand. It is not for the weak of stomach, but there are far worse, and more expensive, diagnostic methods. This method is called the mason jar method, or the fecal flotation test. Wear gloves when performing this test!
From your horse’s fresh manure, take about six balls from the middle of the pile, making sure that they have not come into contact with the ground. Put the manure in a glass jar full of water, and mix it up so that the manure completely dissolves and it has the consistency of tea. It is not tea though, so please do not drink it. Let the liquid sit for fifteen minutes. Plant particles will float, and sand will sink to the bottom. If more than a teaspoon of sand sinks to the bottom of the container, your horse is probably ingesting too much sand, and is at risk of developing sand colic.
What are Products That Can Help Prevent Sand Colic?
If your soil has a high percentage of sand, the first and most important thing to do is place a barrier between your horse’s food and the sandy ground. The use of rubber mats like these are a good idea in his stall or in the area of the paddock where he eats. In addition to serving his food on these mats, it is good to have a tip-proof setup for grain, if possible. Feeding grain in a hook-over style bucket on a fence is one option. These buckets are easy to fill, lift and carry, and they can be hung on pole or board fences. If you want to serve grain in a bucket on the ground, try a heavy-duty rubber tub in a tire with the same diameter as the bucket. This can help keep the bucket from getting tipped over. For feeding hay, feeding from a slow-feed hay net or even better, a slow-feed manger is a way to minimize the amount of hay that ends up on the ground for your horse to pick up with sand. If your horse is recovering from a sand colic episode, or if you find that he is susceptible to sand colic, it is a good idea to supplement his diet with psyllium. Farnam SandClear is an excellent and tasty option for horses, and is safe even for very young horses and nursing mares. For a more concentrated supplement, EquiAid Psyllium is designed to be given seven consecutive days out of every month to clear residual sand out of the gut of the horse. The brand UltraCruz also makes a concentrated psyllium husk powder and a pelleted supplement, available in up to a 64-day supply. Talk to your vet or local equine nutritionist about which option is best for your horse.
Sand colic is not something to be taken lightly, but with certain preventive measures, you can mitigate your horse’s risk of developing sand colic. Much has to do with making sure that his food is in a safe place and that he consumes it in a safe way. Beyond that, certain supplements can help keep his gut moving smoothly along.
Is your horse at risk of sand colic?