Video: Is Sand Colic the Price Horses Pay for a Snowless Winter?

Owners Warned to Watch for Signs

Photo Credit: Lee Canham

Didn’t you love this winter, if you lived in the parts of the country that were relatively snow-free when compared to other years? That was the case here in New England, to be sure. Riding and training continued, indoors and out, and horses wore fewer blankets and made less use of the studs or hard-surfacing on their winter shoes.

Horse owners put a lot of the time saved from shoveling and thawing to good use in the saddle. Plenty of horses are completing the winter in better condition than they normally would because they’ve been able to move around in pastures that might be closed off to them in snowier winters and many of them have been ridden more than usual.

But with every ray of sunshine comes a potentially dark cloud.

Many parts of the United States have sandy soil, and many of our horses are turned out in sand arenas, especially during the winter months. Because of these risk factors, veterinary medical experts at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine are the first this year to ask horse owners to be aware of the dangers of sand colic.

According to Michigan State extension veterinarians, the lack of snow cover this year has resulted in horses nibbling at forage and, as they do, taking in sand. This behavior has resulted in a larger number of sand colic cases than are typically seen this time of year. Normally horses don’t take in sand during the winter if they are in snow-covered areas; this means that their bodies go through a cycle of sand and no sand, giving the horse a chance to get rid of the sand instead of constantly adding to it.

But this winter might have been different, and horse owners should be aware that colic is a risk.

Early signs of excess sand in the equine gut include “?sluggish behavior, weight loss, diarrhea and standing in a stretched position” according to It is believed that excess sand will irritate the lining of the gut, producing these symptoms.

In acute cases, impaction colic may result, with horses presenting the standard signs of colic including frequent rolling, kicking or biting at flanks, pawing and/or sweating.

Prevention of sand colic involves keeping horses off of sandy soil where forage is limited, if possible. Feed horses in buckets, not by throwing grain on the ground or on the floor of a stall. Feed hay in mangers or from hay bags, and put mats underneath feeders and buckets so that horses nibbling fallen bits won’t ingest sand.

Something many horse owners forget is that horses need their feet cleaned out when they come in. Get the sand out of your horses’ hooves so it doesn’t come out on the stall floor and possibly mix with kernels of dropped grain.

Make sure that horses have plenty of clean water whether they’re turned out or in the barn–and that they’re drinking it.

If you have a lot of mud in your paddock in the gate area or along the fence line, use something other than sand to try to deal with it. Avoid using sand for traction on icy spots in the paddock as well. Break up the ice or fence it off if you can.

Some psyllium feed supplement products have been used with mixed results, but should be used according to manufacturer’s instructions and fed once a month for a week, and not continuously.

According to MSU Equine Extension veterinarian Dr. Judy Marteniuk, “it can take weeks or months for sand to be moved out of the digestive track, depending upon the amount present.”

A veterinarian from Texas would be a good expert to ask about sand colic, so here’s a quick insight via video from Jay Bickers DVM, DACVS, staff veterinary surgeon at the Brazos Valley Equine Hospital in Stephenville, Texas.

Some information used in this article was published on the MSU Extension News web site. For more information from MSU Extension, visit

To learn more, read this article about feeding psyllium to reduce the risk of sand colic, from EQUUS Magazine.

“Sand Colic: Risk Factors, Detection,? Treatment, and Prevention” is a downloadable PDF file from the Utah State University Cooperative Extension Service.




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