By Cynthia McFarland, courtesy Farnam
If you don’t live in Florida or the desert Southwest, you probably think your horse isn’t at risk for sand colic. Think again.
When a horse grazes on short, sparse pasture, or is fed hay on the ground, he can ingest sand or dirt. Some horses—especially foals—actually develop a fondness for eating soil, a behavior known as “geophagia.”
Depending on how much is consumed, the sand can accumulate in the horse’s ventral colon and cecum. In regions of the country where sandy soil is common, it’s not unusual for horses to have small amounts of sand in the intestinal tract.
Radiographs (x-rays) and ultrasound are two common techniques used by veterinarians to determine the presence of sand in the horse’s intestine. Veterinarians may also use auscultation of the ventral abdomen (listening to internal sounds with a stethoscope) and a fecal sand float.
Problems can develop when sand builds up. Diarrhea, chronic weight loss and colic caused by irritation and obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract can occur as a result of sand retention. When large amounts of sand are present, routine treatment for sand colic may not be effective, and surgery may be necessary.
When it comes to sand colic, prevention is best.
“Sand colic” may occur when horses ingest any type of earth, so you’ll want to be proactive. For starters, never feed hay on the ground or on any surface where dirt/sand may be present, including stall floors.
There are a number of “slow” feeders on the market designed so that the horse only pulls out a mouthful of hay at a time. Using this type of feeder will greatly limit the amount of hay that falls on the ground. If your horse has a knack for spilling his grain, look for a feed tub with a rim that helps prevent this.
As an additional precaution, you may want to place a rubber mat under the hay feeder and grain bucket or feed tub. Sweep the mat before each feeding to remove any stray dirt or sand the horse might have tracked onto it.
Studies have shown that daily turn out on fresh, green grass helps horses clear accumulated sand. Exercise from being turned out is also credited with helping in the removal of sand.
Along with feeding practices to reduce sand/dirt ingestion, grass turn out and regular exercise, many horsemen use psyllium-based products in an effort to clear accumulated sand out of the horse’s intestines.
These products are made from plants in the genus Plantago, including P. ovata and P. psyllium. Psyllium seed husks are able to absorb large amounts of water. Once psyllium enters the digestive tract, it can increase in volume as much as five times or greater. The resulting gelatinous substance helps support intestinal regularity to help move accumulated sand out with the stool.
Used as a supplemental source, a psyllium-based product is typically given daily for one week out of every month.
You shouldn’t dampen your horse’s feed/grain ration when adding a psyllium supplement because this will make the product sticky and gooey, and your horse may turn his nose up at it. The idea is for the psyllium to become sticky and gooey after it’s in the digestive system so it can do its job.
Always make sure your horse has access 24/7 to clean, fresh water. Water is crucial to your horse’s health year-round, whatever the weather conditions, and it’s especially important when feeding a psyllium-based product.
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The American Paint Horse Association is the world’s second-largest international equine breed association, registering more than a million horses in 59 nations and territories since it was founded. APHA creates and maintains programs that increase the value of American Paint Horses and enriches members’ experiences with their horses.