California is facing a serious drought. Water restrictions are in place everywhere. In a town near mine, you can face jail time for not adhering to the restrictions. Where I live, I’m only allowed to water my lawn on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Everything is dry dry dry, including our horse pastures, causing us a renewed concern about sand colic.
Horses who are fed on the ground in sandy areas can accidentally ingest sand with their hay. The sand collects in the colon. If enough sand collects, it can cause an impaction. Even small amounts of sand can cause problems though. The sand can rub and irritate the mucosa, causing inflammation and diarrhea. How can you know if your horse is ingesting sand? And if he is, is there a way to measure the amount of sand passing through his digestive tract? We can’t measure the amount of sand in the intestines at home (this can be done with radiography by your veterinarian), but we can measure how much is passing though with a simple test. I took my camera to the barn with me this morning and took photographs of my sand test that I performed on my own horse.
Fill your container about 2/3 full with water and mark the container at the top of the water level. If your container is somewhat transparent you can make your mark on the outside of the container which is considerably easier. I made my mark first and then filled my coffee can with water to the line.
Find a fresher pile of road apples so that they will dissolve in the water more quickly. Choose about 6 fecal balls from the top of the pile. Remember, you’re testing for sand. Any sand on your equipment, or on the manure from the ground it’s sitting on will give you a false positive. Add the manure to the bucket and then mark the fluid level.
Allow the manure time to dissolve, and the sand time to settle. I did my chores while my manure sat, 10-15 minutes. Give it an occasional stir to break up the fecal balls. You should have a nasty green sludge.
Carefully pour the manure out of the container, watching for sand. Swirl the container some as you pour to keep pushing the sand back to the bottom. Once you see sand, add water to dilute the manure, swirl to push sand to the bottom, and pour off more liquid. Repeat this step until you have a nice pile of sand at the bottom of your container.
Learn to estimate the amount of sand you collect. I took some photos to give a visual reference.
The pile on the left is what I collected from my sand test. The pile on the right is a 1/4 teaspoon of arena sand. I estimate that my horse passed 1/4 teaspoon of sand. This is considered a positive test result, which is not surprising because that’s him eating on the ground in the very first photograph. My test is not finished yet though. I need to retest every other day for two weeks to get a more accurate result. We marked the levels on our container so that we can use the same ratio of water to manure each time to keep our results consistent.
If my horse continues to pass 1/4 teaspoon of sand in the majority of the tests over the next two weeks, then I have a problem that needs to be addressed. What should I do differently?
First things first, stop feeding on the sandy ground! Horses were designed to eat at ground level, and slowly. I like to scatter piles of hay around the paddock in order to mimic grazing. I can still do that, but I need to find something to put the hay on. Rubber mats are ideal. If you can’t afford mats, get creative. What about carpeting? Be safety conscious. Don’t use anything slippery, that your horse can become tangled in, or that your horse might try to eat.
This is Ramber eating on rubber mats
Ground level feeders are also a good idea. Find a feeder that is big enough that your horse doesn’t end up tossing all his hay out and then eating off the ground anyway. Slow feeders look awesome. I want one. A lot of creative types even build their own. Other feeders I like include tractor tires, old water troughs, and crates from orchards.
Check out what this creative person came up with!
Psyllium is a commonly used supplement for the prevention of sand colic. It is very high in fiber. When fed, it swells in the horse’s colon, picks up sand, and carries it out. If fed regularly for more than a week or two, the horse will adapt to the fiber levels and it will no longer be effective in removing sand. It has to be fed intermittently, perhaps for one week out of each month. Supplementing with Psyllium is not a bulletproof way to prevent sand colic. Please don’t feed your horse on the ground of your sand covered arena and think you’re fine because you feed Psyllium. A lot of horses on Psyllium end up in surgery. Research has found that not all horses respond equally to being fed Psyllium.
A sand test is a good place to start if you suspect that sand might be a problem for your horse. Please be wise and consult your veterinarian before performing your own diagnosis and prescribing your own treatment. I am all for being well-informed, independent horse owners. But there is a reason your veterinarian gets to have those three letters behind his/her name.