Horses are big, beautiful creatures whom we love dearly, but sometimes they’re just not smart. Many of these four-legged beasts trot in from the pasture with gaping lacerations or damage to their eyes, making their owners dream of investing in horse-sized rolls of bubble wrap. For their size, horses are delicate creatures, prone to all sorts of mishaps, the least of which is colic. In this case, we are talking about sand colic. 

Causes of sand colic in horses

Sand colic is not caused by horses guzzling down sand like it’s the last of their grain, but rather as an accidental ingestion. Horses who get sand in their intestinal tract live in a sandy environment (obviously), graze in sandy pastures, or eat off the ground. They snatch spilled grain or wisps of hay from sandy soil, or eat clumps of grass that have sand clinging to the roots. The sand granules then settle in the bottom of the large colon, where their grittiness irritates the intestinal lining.

Signs of sand colic in horses

You can determine whether your horse has a sand impaction by dissolving the feces. Put five or six balls of fresh manure taken from the middle of a pile, to reduce ground contamination, in a quart of water. Stir the contents to break up the fecal balls, let the mixture sit for 15 minutes, and check to see if any sand has settled at the bottom. If you see more than half a teaspoon of sand per five to six fecal balls, your horse has ingested a dangerous amount. However, even if you do not see any sand, your horse may not be safe from harm, because sand may have settled in the gut rather than be moving through the digestive tract.

Regardless of the amount of sand you see, call us immediately if your horse is showing the following signs of colic:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Looking at the flank
  • Rolling or wanting to lie down
  • Lack of defecation or appetite
  • Chronic abdominal pain

Horses with sand accumulation in the gut often present with watery diarrhea, inappetence, depression, and weight loss. A rectal exam may reveal sand impacted in the colon, but even if the exam finds nothing, sand may have  accumulated further up the gastrointestinal tract. To correctly identify sand accumulation, we listen to the lowest point of your horse’s abdomen for sounds of sand moving—if your horse’s gut is still moving, it sounds like the sea moving off a sandy beach. We may also recommend abdominal X-rays or an ultrasound to look for sand-accumulation signs. 

Treatment of sand colic in horses

Initial sand-colic treatment usually includes passing a nasogastric tube and administering water, mineral oil, and psyllium, a natural laxative, to your horse. Depending on the severity, we may recommend fluids to help intestinal motility and pain medication to alleviate gas distension and intestinal irritation. If medical management is not effective, removing the sand surgically is the only option. 

After the initial treatment, your horse may require a daily laxative slipped into her feed to help her pass any remaining sand or grit. Treatment can take months to fully resolve a sand impaction.

Prevention of sand colic in horses

Sand-colic prevention is easier than treatment. All the laxatives in the world won’t clear a massive sand impaction if your horse keeps scarfing down sand. To avoid putting your horse under anesthesia to remove a sand impaction, follow these tips:

  • Place rubber mats under feeders or out in the paddock where you feed your horse.
  • Use feeders on the ground large enough that they can’t be overturned.
  • Put feed on top of shavings or straw.
  • Offer your horse hay to give her something to do throughout the day rather than scrounge for morsels off the ground.
  • Manage your pastures so they don’t become overgrazed.

If you happen to have a silly horse who simply likes to eat dirt, invest in a grazing muzzle that only allows her to breathe and drink, that you remove during feeding time.

If your horse is a dirt-eater and runs into a sand-impaction issue, give us a call—we’ve got plenty of laxatives on hand.