What causes colic in horses?

Sand colic is caused by the ingestion of sand by your horse. This occurs most commonly on sandy soils, when the availability of roughage is reduced, and some horses just seem to develop a liking for grazing low to the ground and even licking sand! In Western Australia, this is a particular problem due to the sandy nature of our soil. Sand is highly irritating to the intestines and is also much heavier than the normal material that horses eat. These two factors cause blockages and colic in horses, and diarrhoea.

What are the symptoms and signs of sand colic?

Many horses with a sand accumulation do not show symptoms until they suddenly develop either colic or diarrhoea. Colic symptoms mimic other forms of colic – lying down frequently, rolling, pawing, stretching and refusing to eat. This is caused by blockage and irritation of the intestine by the heavy sand burden. Horses can develop either chronic or acute diarrhoea from sand irritation, which can be very serious in nature.

How can I tell if my horse has a sand accumulation?

If your horse is kept on sand, and certainly if it grazes or is fed off of sand, it is highly likely they will have some degree of sand in the digestive tract. A simple test, that can easily be done at home, is to mix faeces with water and suspend in a disposable glove. If there is sand present, this will sink to the bottom of the fingers of the glove. It should be noted however that this test is not hugely accurate and can easily have “false negative” results, meaning that there is no sand seen but the horse still has a sand accumulation.


You can sometimes hear sand moving in the ventral abdomen if you listen with a stethoscope, but again this is not particularly accurate and it may not always be possible to detect sand this way.

A more sensitive test is to x-ray the horse’s abdomen to look for sand accumulation in the lower part of the abdomen. This not only identifies sand, but also allows us to score the amount of sand present and ascribe it a risk factor for the development of issues. For example, if a large burden is seen, we can be more cautious with monitoring and treatment.

How is sand colic treated?

Prevention is always better than cure – but that is easier said than done in sandy WA!

The feeding of psyllium is a common way to get rid of sand. This needs to be done for only a short period at a time, and the dose rate to be effective is quite high. Unfortunately, many horses do not find this palatable.

Most veterinarians recommend drenching with a purgative sand drench to remove any sand accumulations before they cause clinical signs. Drenching with psyllium can also be an option.

How can we help?

  • Book a Sand Drench at the clinic
  • Psyllium drench
  • Sand x-rays (note, abdominal x-rays may not be suitable for every case. This can be discussed with the veterinarian at the time of consultation)
  • Call the clinic as soon as possible  on 9296 3884 if you note any of the signs of sand colic in your horse