Although we all like to see it at the beach, sand can be a relentless problem in the equine world. Here in Wisconsin, although it may not look like it, there is a considerable amount of sand in the soil. Horses can ingest sand from grazing, eating off of the ground, or just eating dirt for minerals. A small amount of ingested sand can cause irritation of their hindgut causing diarrhea. As sand accumulates over time, it can settle and become heavy in their colon and can cause weight loss, discomfort and colic. In severe cases, it can lead to impactions or even rupture of the colon. Your veterinarian can diagnose sand with a stethoscope, abdominal ultrasound, radiographs, and fecal tests. Now before you start researching places to move to avoid the sand, there are several ways to prevent and treat horses with sand.
The best way to prevent your horse from ingesting sand is to avoid feeding them directly off of the ground. Hay nets, grain troughs, and rubber grain buckets can reduce a large amount of sand consumed. If your horse is a messy eater, placing flat rubber mats on the ground where they are fed can catch any loose food and reduces the risk of eating dirt with those scraps.
It is also important to make sure the pasture your horse is out on is not becoming overgrazed. As horses try to graze on short stubbles of grass, it is much more likely for them to consume soil rather than if they are on tall, lush pasture. Rotating pastures is a great way to avoid this problem.
Researchers at the University of Florida found that the best way to prevent and clear sand from a horse was by feeding them plenty of hay over the course of the day. The bulk of forage passing through the hindgut decreases the amount of sand that settles out and can help push out any sand that is stuck there. Horses munching all day mimics the natural grazing behavior of wild horses and helps keep things moving along. P.S. Hay nets and slow-feeders are easy ways to make the hay last longer, especially if your horse likes to gobble it up quickly.
Make sure your horse has access to fresh water all day. Keeping the gut hydrated will help prevent impactions (of any kind). If your horse doesn’t like to drink much, adding Gatorade, a small handful of sweet feed, or salt may entice them to drink more. Just make sure they have a bucket of plain water along with it!
Psyllium is a high-fiber laxative that can easily be added to the diet of any horse that may consume sand. Psyllium works with water horses consume to create a gel-like coating that sticks to sand. It is a great preventative for horses that consume lower volumes of sand but is not a cure for horses with large sand accumulation. As psyllium comes in many shapes and forms, it is important to read the directions of the brand you choose.
Salt is an important staple in equine nutrition. Horses that may be needing more minerals in their diet may actually eat dirt in search for them. Adding salt to your equine’s diet can include salt blocks or top-dressing salt on their feed. More information on deciding what type of salt is best for your horse, please refer to “The Scoop on Salt” blog post.
Schedule physical exams with your veterinarian at least once per year. Your veterinarian can listen for sand so you can treat it before it becomes a big problem or emergency.
How to perform your own fecal sand test:
A simple way to know if your horse has potentially consumed sand is to do a fecal test. Place several fecal balls into any clear container, i.e., plastic bag, mason jar, rectal sleeve, and break them up in water. (Tip: use fecal balls from the center of a pile to ensure they aren’t contaminated with outside sand) After 15 minutes, look to see if there is any sand deposited at the bottom of the container. If there is sand present, it is due to sand passed with the feces. Unfortunately, this test does not always correlate with how much sand is present and even a negative test doesn’t always mean your horse doesn’t have sand.