At this time of the year we regularly hear that horses have sand in their intestines and sometimes even get colic or diarrhea. How does that sand get in? Why do horses sometimes eat sand? And more importantly, how do you prevent sand build-up from becoming a problem and even causing colic? We list the causes and solutions for you.
Sand colic is a serious and painful condition. Sand accumulates in the intestines and creates a heavy, compact mass that limits or even blocks the passage of food. If the build-up becomes very heavy, the intestine can even rupture! But even if your horse does not get colic, the sand can still get in the way, even when riding.
It is normal for horses to always ingest a little sand. For example when grazing in a (calmer) meadow or through the hay, when it is dusty. Even when horses eat roughage from bare ground, they absorb some sand. However, some horses eat sand in chunks at a time and dig holes in the paddock. Why do they do that?
Cause 1: mineral deficiency
Some horses eat sand to replenish a particular mineral. For example iron or silicon. You often see them digging or licking a certain color of soil. If your horse does this, it is a good idea to hang up a (different) lick and / or to give a supplement with absorbable silicon. Silicon is an essential element for bone growth and maintenance of tendons and ligaments, but this mineral is only easily absorbed in liquid form. Silicon is also the main component of sand, but your horse cannot absorb it in that form! Does your horse continue to eat sand, despite a lick stone and silicon supplement? Then ask the vet to do a blood test to see if there is a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
We always advise to feed your horse what we call in the Netherlands a ‘balancer’ with pre-mix vitamins and minerals. For example Vitalbix, Pavo Vital, Metazoa and Equilin.
Cause 2: Stomach problems, fiber deficiency and little social contact
Another cause for eating sand is pain in the stomach and / or a shortage of fiber. Stomach problems arise from too little roughage and stress. Horses produce a lot of stomach acid, even when their stomach is empty and the acid starts to bite into the stomach wall. This happens, for example, if they are without roughage for too long. Stress from too little social contact or a lack of free movement can also cause stomach pain. Horses with stomach pain seem to want to fill their stomach for the pain and therefore eat sand. A shortage of fiber due to too little roughage can also cause horses to eat sand. In any case, provide roughage with a lot of fiber several times a day and try to avoid stress.
Does my horse have too much sand in its intestines?
It is actually very simple: your horse gets sand deposits in the intestines if more sand enters than comes out. But how do you know if that is the case? You can see in the manure whether your horse is excreting sand, although there are a few hooks and eyes on it. Every horse will have a little bit of sand in the manure, that’s how it should be. But if there is a lot of sand in it, it is an indication that your horse is also ingesting a lot of sand. If you want to know if your horse has sand in its intestines, you can test the manure yourself. Put a few balls of dung in a plastic glove and add water to make a “soup.” Hang the glove up for half an hour and see if sand has settled in the fingertips. Note: sand often comes out in waves, one day and not the next. If there is no sand in the glove on your first fertilizer test, it is wise to repeat the test after a few days to make sure.
More difficult to bend due to sand in the appendix
Did you know that sand can also affect your training? You can sometimes also notice when riding that your horse has too much sand in its intestines. If your horse suddenly has trouble bending to the right or galloping to the right, this may indicate that sand has accumulated in the colon. A horse has a large appendix that “hangs” on the right flank. If it is heavy due to accumulated sand, it will get in the way and limit movement, especially clockwise.
Expelling sand from the intestines
There are several products on the market to expel sand from the intestines. Most of these are based on psyllium, sometimes supplemented with probiotics, for example. Psyllium or flea seed comes from the plant Plantago Ovata. The seeds release a type of mucilage when they come into contact with water and “sweep” as much sand from the intestines. Scientific research has shown that the combination of psyllium and magnesium sulphate in particular has a positive effect on sand accumulations in the intestines. It is important that you give enough. Sometimes a product is called a “maintenance dose”, but research shows that a small psyllium dose mainly has a positive effect on the good bacteria in the intestines, but does little against accumulated sand. So make sure that you give the higher dose, which is indicated for expelling sand. Usually that is about 100 – 200 g psyllium for an adult horse. Continue the treatment long enough, at least 7 days. In studies, even 10 days turned out to be a good idea. Make sure that there is a month between the sand courses, so that the intestines do not “get used” to the psyllium. Recent research shows that you can achieve a considerable reduction of about 50% of the accumulated sand with this. However, there was still something left with the horses in the study, especially because the supply of sand often continues to exist. So it is a persistent problem. If your horse has sand colic, which can often be recognized by stomach pain and diarrhea, call the vet immediately. In addition to a treatment with psyllium, it will probably also inject paraffin oil into the stomach with a nasal tube to make the intestinal contents smooth and soft and to get the sand out of the system faster.
Possible solutions for sand eating horse
You can therefore take many different measures to prevent sand colic, preferably at the same time:
- Provide regularly (or even continuously) available good quality roughage with a lot of fiber
- The roughage must not be dusty or contain a lot of sand, steaming or rinsing is possibly a solution
- Feed the roughage from a container or from a clean tile floor, not from the ground
- Make sure your horse gets all the minerals and vitamins he needs, horses that don’t get any (or little) concentrate can be given a ‘balancer’
- Make sure your horse has access to a lick stone or add a liquid lick stone to a seperate water bucket
- A supplement with the mineral silicon can also reduce sand eating
- Provide plenty of distraction and social interaction when your horse is in the paddock, so that he does not dig holes and eat sand out of boredom
- Occasionally test your horse’s manure to check for sand
- Does your horse still get sand, or do you suspect that? Then give a cure of (a product with) psyllium seed for a week at most once a month to “rinse” the sand from the intestines.
- A. Hart,W. Linnenkohl, J. R. Mayer, A. M. House, J. R. Gold and S. Giguère. Medical management of sand enteropathy in 62 horses. 2012. Equine Veterinary Journal ISSN 0425-1644
- Allen D. Landes, Diana M. Hassel, Janel D. Funk, Ashley Hill. Fecal Sand Clearance Is Enhanced with a Product Combining Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Psyllium in Clinically Normal Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 1 February 2008 (volume 28 issue 2 Pages 79-84). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0737080608000154?via%3Dihub
- Ruohoniemi, , R. Kaikkonen, M. Raekallio, L. Luukkanen. Abdominal radiography in monitoring the resolution of sand accumulations from the large colon of horses treated medically. Equine Vet J. 2001 Jan;33(1):59-64.
- Mienaltowski MJ, Belt A, Henderson JD, et al. Psyllium supplementation is associated with changes in the fecal microbiota of horses. BMC Res Notes. 2020;13(1):459. Published 2020 Sep 29. doi:10.1186/s13104-020-05305-w https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7526151/
- Niinistö, Kati & Ruohoniemi, Mirja & Freccero, Francesca & Raekallio, Marja. (2018). Investigation of the treatment of sand accumulations in the equine large colon with psyllium and magnesium sulphate. The Veterinary Journal. 238. 10.1016/j.tvjl.2018.06.005. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325747409_Investigation_of_the_treatment_of_sand_accumulations_in_the_equine_large_colon_with_psyllium_and_magnesium_sulphate
- Kaikkonen, R., Niinistö, K., Lindholm, T. et al. Comparison of psyllium feeding at home and nasogastric intubation of psyllium and magnesium sulfate in the hospital as a treatment for naturally occurring colonic sand (geosediment) accumulations in horses: a retrospective study. Acta Vet Scand 58, 73 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13028-016-0254-z https://actavetscand.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13028-016-0254-z