Dr. Tania Sundra

23 June 2020

Sand Colic In Horses

Sand colic is something horse owners and vets will always be battling in WA and unfortunately, we see a large number of cases every year. Buildup of sand in the GI tract can cause painful obstructions and gastrointestinal irritation.


Signs of sand colic can range from mild to severe. A horse with a high sand burden may have one or more of the following signs :

  • intermittent colic
  • loose stools /scouring / diarrhoea
  • low-grade fever
  • weight loss


Radiographic examination is currently the most reliable and commonly used diagnostic method for sand accumulation. It also allows response to therapy to evaluated (ie. before and after treatment xrays).

Radiography is an excellent imaging tool to diagnose sand accumulations and to estimate the relative amount of sand in the colon of horses. It’s simple, non-invasive and can be performed on your property with our state-of-the-art wireless digital xray unit. Note the radio-opaque areas (white areas) within the abdomen which indicate sand.


Another recent study evaluated the efficacy of psyllium and MgSO4 (administered by nasogastric tubing) for the removal of large colon sand accumulations in horses without clinical signs of acute colic. The amounts of accumulated sand were evaluated radiographically before and after treatment. Significantly more treated horses (psyllium and MgSO4) cleared their sand accumulations than horses in the control group. This study demonstrated that medical treatment of horses with sand accumulation in the large colon by nasogastric tubing of a combination of psyllium and MgSO4 resolved the sand accumulation. In addition to the laxative effect attributed to its fibre content, psyllium stimulates the intestine. Psyllium is a simple bulk laxative, whereas MgSO4 acts as an osmotic agent that accumulates water in the intestine and enhances intestinal motility.

For more information about our Sand Colic Prevention Package, please contact us on 0427 072 095.

  • DO NOT feed horses directly off the ground.
  • DO NOT overgraze pastures.
  • DO use rubber mats around feeders to prevent horses ingesting sand when scrounging around for dropped feed.
  • DO rest your paddocks and keep horses off them until a good ground cover has been established.
  • DO provide free-access to good quality hay 24/7. Horses are designed to graze continuously and not having access to roughage will lead them to grazing the new shoots.
  • Always ensure your horse has free access to clean, fresh drinking water. Add some electrolytes to their feed to increase water intake during cold weather. Fussy drinkers may be tempted with a bucket of warm molasses water.
  • DO feed psyllium (0.5-1g/kg bodyweight) for 5 days per month. Ensure your horse is drinking well whilst on the psyllium course.
  • DO NOT feed psyllium to a colicky horse (regardless of how ‘mild’ you think the symptoms are).
  • DO contact us immediately if you suspect your horse is colicky. Most of the cases we have seen have been horses who were showing mild signs of “not being right” in the days leading up to the colic episode. Keep a close eye on your horse’s feed and water intake, manure output and overall demeanour.
  • DO find out your horse’s sand burden. Abdominal X-rays can easily diagnose and grade your horse’s sand load. This can be performed on your property with our mobile xray machine.
  • DO NOT rely on “the glove test” alone to determine if your horse has a sand buildup. This is not a reliable test.


A recent (2019) study conducted in Finland examined the association between the presence and size of intestinal sand accumulations and owner-reported clinical signs, management, and feeding practices, as well as behavioral patterns in horses with radiographic diagnosis of sand accumulation.

Approx 447 owners of the horses filled in an online questionnaire. The size of the sand accumulation detected in the radiographs was not significantly associated with the age, body condition score, sex, or use of the horses. Horses reported to have expressed colic had significantly larger sand accumulations than those without this sign, and a similar association was detected in horses with poor performance.

Larger sand accumulations were detected in greedy horses that eat all their roughage, whereas dominant position in group hierarchy was associated with less sand.

In this study, diarrhea was a more common sign than colic also in the group of horses with large sand accumulations. However, diarrhea alone was not significantly associated with the size of sand accumulation.

Problems associated with large colon sand accumulation seemed to intensify during autumn and early winter. The time lag between gaining a sand accumulation and showing clinical signs is unknown, and may depend on a horse’s pain tolerance.

The results suggest that some behavioral characteristics can be linked to intestinal sand accumulation. Greedy horses that eat all their roughage had larger sand accumulations. They also however, demonstrate that dominant behavior was associated with smaller sand accumulation. This might be due to dominant horses getting the best or the most hay.

It remains unclear why some horses had no sand accumulation despite being observed to eat sand. The mechanisms of accumulation are obscure, but when accumulation occurs, the weight of the sand might hinder the physiological movements of the colon. One theory to explain the original accumulation might be an initial decline of intestinal motility. Horses with sand colic often present with colon impaction both of these conditions can be related to insufficient intestinal motility. Therefore, individual variation in gut motility and associated physiology may affect the accumulation of sand and the rate of its removal.

This study suggests that the possibility of abdominal sand accumulation should be kept in mind as one of the differentials in horses with clinical signs such as colic, poor performance, diarrhea, and sensitivity to touch of the abdominal wall.

For more information about our Sand Colic Prevention Package, please contact us on 0427 072 095.