Early and unsuitable turnout for horses – What to do?

In this unfortunate time of the Covid -19 pandemic many competition and race fixtures have been cancelled and owners have made the decision to turn horses out early on paddocks that are bare, in sand arenas or fields that are just starting to show spring grass coming through.

Unfortunately, there is a danger in turning horses out in these conditions. Horses can ingest large amounts of sand as they grasp at small spring grass shoots, leading to a symptom which is commonly known as Sand Colic. Sand colic is abdominal pain secondary to ingesting sand and or soil. All ages and breeds of horses are predisposed to sand colic. (Ragle CA, et al.)

Sand in the horse’s stomach can manifest in colic-like symptoms. It can also lead to impaired performance and generally give the horse a really poor well-being.

The most typical symptoms that indicate the horse has too much sand in the stomach are:

  • Impaired performance.
  • Resistance, not wanting to go forward.
  • Weight Loss.
  • Lack of desire to eat.
  • Reoccurring abdominal pain.
  • Discomfort when saddling.
  • Mildly depressed and/or sweaty.
  • Cribbing.

Diagnosis is based on tests, clinical signs, and observation of the environment.

The collection of soil particles in the horse’s stomach and large intestine not only lead to impaction but when the fine particles have been lying there for a long time, the intestinal wall will become irritated and thickened, and mucosal ulcers can form in the colon. Sand Colic can also cause bowel dysfunction and impair the absorption of nutrients.

In recent years the number of horses has decreased, but so too has agricultural land and the concentration of horses in the same place or in the same area has increased. This may cause insufficient grass, bare paddocks due to over grazing and horses begin to pull up the grass roots, thereby consuming the soil and sand.


The goals of treating sand colic are as follows (Udenberg T):

  • Lubricate and disrupt the obstructing mass.
  • Relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Support normal body functions.
  • Prevent recurrence.
  • Surgery may be necessary.

Supplementation with psyllium husks is routinely used in the treatment of sand colic. Psyllium seed husks are able to absorb large amounts of water. Once psyllium enters the digestive tract, it can increase in volume as much as five times or greater. The resulting gelatinous substance helps support intestinal regularity to help move accumulated sand out with the stool. Psyllium is believed to have a better ability to penetrate, hydrate, and disrupt sand impactions than other laxatives (Sullins KE; Ferraro GL).

Psyllium is believed to work by stimulating intestinal motility and by making the sand stick together, allowing the horse to pass the sand. Other laxatives such as mineral oil is generally ineffective because they tend to float over the surface of the impaction. Rehydration and over-hydration with intravenously administered fluids can help add moisture content to the lumen in the area of the impaction.


  • Ensure adequate grass cover is available before turning out horses.
  • Don’t allow paddocks to become bare so that the horses come back in close contact with the ground and increase their chances of getting sand in the stomach.
  • In the stable horses should not be fed on the ground and rubber matting used under troughs.
  • Horses should be removed from sandy pastures if possible.
  • Administering psyllium as a daily or weekly supplement has been suggested as a preventive measure. (Hammock PD et al)

As with all cases of colic in horse’s veterinarian advise should be sought immediately once symptoms become apparent.


Ferraro GL: Diagnosis and treatment of sand colic in the horse. Vet Med Small Anim Clin 68:736, 1973.
Hammock PD, Freeman DE, Baker GJ: Failure of psyllium mucilloid to hasten evacuation of sand from the equine large intestine. Vet Surg 27:547-554, 1998.
Ragle CA, Meagher DM, Schrader JL, et al: Abdominal auscultation in the detection of experimentally induced gastrointestinal sand accumulation. J Vet Intern Med 3:12-14, 1989.
Sullins KE: Sand impaction, in White NA (ed): The Equine Acute Abdomen. Philadelphia, Lea & Febiger, 1990, pp 376-377.
Udenberg T: Equine colic associated with sand impaction of the large colon. Can Vet J 20:269-272, 1979