How can I tell if my horse is passing sand?


We have all heard and read that sand (or dirt) is a no-no in your horse’s system as it can lead to digestive issues, including colic, diarrhea, in addition to performance issues.  So do we need to start a mass panic and buy out all supplies of psyllium for the sandpocalypse?  Probably not.


The main reason to test your horse for sand it to create a baseline for your horse’s environment and his current state.  Sort of a starting spot (like a temperature or weight).  Before you do any of the following tests, chat with your Veterinarian about your horse, his living situation, and a reasonable game plan if you find sand.  Then, when you have collected some results, you and your Veterinarian can find the best option for your situation.  


First, a few things to know about sand in horses.  


  • It can be benign or it can be dangerous.   Different horses tolerate sand differently.
  • There is no scientifically deduced amount of sand that creates a problem in all horses.  
  • You must repeat the test over time to determine true results.  A negative test means that no sand passed through in your manure sample, it doesn’t mean definitively that there is no sand in the colon.  
  • A positive result means that sand has passed through your horse, but it won’t tell you how much is still inside your horse.  



So how do you start to test for sand in your horse’s colon? You have some methods to choose from, depending on how scientific you would like to be.  


The first method requires a clear rectal exam glove, some water and a few fecal balls.  Collect your fecal ball sample in the glove, add some water and slosh it around to dissolve the manure, and allow it to settle for 10 minutes or so.  If sand is present, it will sink into the fingers of the glove.  


You can "borrow" a glove from your Vet. 


The second method requires a bucket, some water, and a few fecal balls.  Fill your container with water about halfway and mark the water line inside of the container.  (Your container can be fairly small here, no need to grab a 55 gallon drum.  Most medium sized supplement containers that are about 3 quarts are just fine.)


Add five or six fecal balls and then make another mark on the inside of the bucket to delineate the new, higher water level.  


Allow the mixture to “stew” and dissolve, then carefully drain the stew from the top of the container.  Any sand will remain in the bottom of the container.  Note the quantity, or even save it if you would like. 


Or you can use a plastic baggie or a bucket. 


These tests should be repeated every other day for two weeks.  Using the second method is a bit more exact for repeat testing.  After you have the water lines marked on your container, you can repeat the test by filling to the lower line with water, and then adding feces until the water line rises to the second mark.  This creates a consistent testing method using more exact amounts of fecal balls and water.  


Then, you and your Veterinarian can plan an attack. Your Veterinarian can also use his stethoscope to listen for sand, and sometimes special abdominal radiographs can be done.  


It’s important to discuss your sand test findings with your Veterinarian to find the best remedy for sand for your horse.  Often, psyllium is used, and sometimes other laxatives such as mineral oil would be more appropriate for your horse.  Unfortunately, sand can cause impactions where surgery is the best option for sand removal.  Doing these simple tests are a great way, over time, to monitor your horse.  


From a strictly barn managerial standpoint, you have some options to help your horse avoid ingesting sand. 


  • Feed hay, grains, and supplements on a dirt free surface.  Mats, hay nets, giant tubs, even a wooden deck could be used.  I have even seen bowls that are molded onto mats to make for easier grain clean up, and boy do I wish I came up with that idea!!


  • Avoid letting your pasture be eaten down or mowed down.  As horses nibble on the tiny grass stems, their chance of getting some sand is increased as well.


  • Consider adding psyllium to your horse’s diet for one week per month.  This is much current debate and research on this subject as to the efficacy of psyllium and how it should be used.  Most of the research supports a one week out of four weeks as a good system.  This is also an instance where you may want to chat with your Veterinarian or Nutritionist. 


For ideas on how to prevent your horse from eating sand, read this gem!


Have you tested your horse for sand?