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Bay horse rolling and sweaty due to sand colic symptoms.

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Sand Colic - The Surprising (Simple) Cure & Prevention

Sand colic is digestive upset resulting from the accumulation of ingested sand and dirt. It occurs when particles sink to the bottom of the intestines where abrasion irritates the intestinal lining and causes discomfort. Sand Colic is estimated to be responsible for approximately 30% of colic cases.

Read on to learn the most effective means for removal and the best way to prevent sand accumulation.
Horse rolling because of sand colic

​How Sand Accumulates In the Digestive Tract

​Horses, donkeys and mules ingest sand as they eat from the ground or graze short pastures. Scrounging for tiny bits of hay or grain further increases the sand-to-forage ratio exponentially - accelerating the accumulation of sand. Further sand accumulation can be experienced if there are periods of time without feedstuff traveling through the digestive tract. Without ingesta (substances taken into the body as nourishment; food and drink) to mix with and carry the sand particles out, gravity forces the sand to settle in the bottom of the intestines. 
Pony scrounging for bits of hay
Scrounging for tiny bits of hay between meals.

​Sand Colic Symptoms & Severity

  • Mild sand colic symptoms include discomfort and diarrhea and may appear to be temporary. This is the time to implement reactive and proactive measures.
  • Severe sand colic symptoms include weight loss, profuse diarrhea, ongoing intense discomfort resulting in eventual blockage or - worst case scenario - the intestines may become twisted, displaced or even rupture.

​(Surprisingly Simple) Prevention & Cure - Hay

According to studies at the University of Florida, hay is overwhelmingly the most effective way to move sand from the digestive tract and prevent accumulation.

The University of Florida tested four means of sand removal:
  1. Hay fed at 1.5% of body weight
  2. Hay fed at 2.5% of body weight
  3. Hay fed at 1.5% of body weight, plus psyllium fed in a single daily dose
  4. Hay fed at 1.5% of body weight with psyllium fed twice daily.
The results indicated that feeding hay at 2.5% of body weight (25 lbs. for a 1000 lb. horse) uniformly produced the largest sand output.

Free choice hay - via slow feeders or loose - supplies a steady supply of fiber moving through the digestive tract carrying sand out with manure prior to settling in the large colon by promoting gut motility and volume. Learn how to give your horse more chew time and bulk (without the weight gain).
Considering the volume of ingesta, sufficient amounts of hay provide:
  • Lower sand to ingesta ratio.
  • Volume to carry sand through the digestive tract prior to it having the ability to settle in the lower portions of the intestines.
  • Increased gut motility with a constant supply moving through the digestive tract (optimum when proper hydration and movement is present).
  • Peristaltic and antiperistaltic contractions, leading to additional mixing of ingesta and sand.

​Psyllium Effectiveness? 

Prior to the University of Florida’s study,  the standard protocol for sand removal was feeding psyllium (a mucilaginous substance). Psyllium absorbs liquids from the intestines and swells as it moves through the digestive tract.

However, a study conducted at the University of Illinois over an 11 day period found that ponies dosed with psyllium in an attempt to remove sand were no more efficient at sand removal than ponies given a control diet. The study's conclusion: psyllium mucilloid had no apparent effect on sand evacuation from the equine large intestine.

Given the short period of time (11 days) the results may not 1) represent the effectiveness of psyllium fed over a longer period of time or 2) consider smaller volumes of ingested sand. The University of Florida’s study does, however,  show sufficient hay alone is more effective than psyllium.

​How to Minimize Sand/Dirt Ingestion

Horse grazing on short pasture increases sand colic risk
Short pastures increase sand to forage ratio.
  • Feed all grain or pelleted feeds in a large tub on stall mats.
  • If your equine is fed meals, prevent any hay from falling on the ground. If the only source of hay is the last tiny bits (fines), scrounging for them in sand or dirt greatly increases the odds of accumulation.  
  • Avoid grazing on short pasture grasses.
  • Provide free choice hay. If concerned about caloric intake, see our Free Choice Forage - Detailed Action Plan .
  • If using slow feeders, look for those that best contain the hay from falling on the ground. Always choose a mesh size best suited for your horse's skill and frustration level.

​As Nature Intended

​Horses are designed to graze/forage 16-20 hours a day - ingesting small amounts as they move from place to place. It is possible to mimic the horse's natural lifestyle – to allow free choice forage and slow consumption (if necessary) - while encouraging movement. This scenario compliments their digestive tract - providing optimum conditions for a very complex, vast and sensitive route of ingesta from intake to excretion.
Horse eating from a Hay Pillow on sandy ground

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Monique Warren, Hay Pillow Founder with the Hay Pillow Slow Feeder product line - standard ground hay pillow, mini hay pillow, hanging hay pillow & horse trailer manger hay pillow

About the Author

Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc. ​Warren has been an equine guardian for over forty years and slow-feed advocate for over 10 years. She contributes equine nutrition, digestive and hoof health articles to publications such as Equine Wellness, The Journal, The Naturally Healthy Horse, Natural Horse Magazine, Nicker News, The Horse's Hoof and Miniature Horse World Magazine. Equine nutrition and horses feet are her passions. She resides in Southern California.

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