Should I keep my horse off the sand to avoid colic?

Monty’s Answer:    

This is an important topic that I will need to answer in two parts: July 25 and August 1. Virtually every equine veterinarian will agree that horses that ingest even moderate amounts of sand are negatively impacted. Sand in the intestine in sufficient amounts will cause what is commonly known as “sand colic.” While this is true, even a small amount of sand will tend to act in an abrasive fashion to damage and even eliminate intestinal cilia. These are hair like extensions of intestinal wall.

We could say that food material containing sand acts like sand paper to scrape off the cilia eliminating their function in the digestive scenario. Cilia are critically important in the uptake of minerals which then pass into the blood stream and travel to the important areas they serve within the equine anatomy. Reduced cilia, among other negatives, will compromise the development of a sound equine bone structure.

By the time a horse has sand colic, a massive amount of damage has probably occurred. Sand colic is the result of many digestive problems compounding themselves until one has reduced peristaltic activity (the movement of material through the intestinal tract), after which a blockage usually occurs, and then there is pain (colic), hence a call to the veterinarian. The answer is to keep the sand out of the horses.

There are preparations being sold with the promise that they will help collect the sand and move it along, reducing the negativity of sand ingestion. The fact is that there is still sand passing through the intestine and therefore damage is experienced, whether or not one sees it on a daily basis. Clearly, if one can devise methods by which we reduce or eliminate the ingestion of sand, our horses are far better off.

The Internet is loaded with good information from prominent veterinarians regarding sand ingestion in horses. Google Sand Colic and look up entries written by these various veterinarians. One can peruse the commercials for products that assist where sand ingestion is concerned, but consider them as commercials and realize that the ultimate goal is to stop the sand from entering the horse in the first place.

Around about 1994, I was asked by Walther J. Jacobs, the owner of Gestut Fahrhof in Bremen, Germany to solve this problem of his precious Thoroughbred horses eating sand. Remembering back on my University days, I did an enormous amount of work to test how much sand was actually traversing the digestive track of these animals. I was amazed to find that as much as 80 grams of sand was present in a kilo of fecal material.

Most veterinarians site anything over six or eight grams per kilo as being a serious problem. I was to discover that the whole of north Germany is a sandy alluvial plane and that this problem has existed for hundreds of years. Off I went to the German National Veterinarian University at Hannover where I requested a study of the Gestut Fahrhof problem. The University was cooperative and quick to agree to the study.

There were many suggestions that were made after two or three months of assessing the situation. One was to eliminate grazing on grassy paddocks. Another was to reduce the time in the fields dramatically. Next it was suggested that we have fields with no grass at all and only use them for short periods of exercise. The Jacobs family found each of these suggestions unacceptable, and I was asked to continue the study.

One veterinarian put forward a novel solution which was to create an agreement with the county tree trimmers in the area of Bremen, Germany. I was told to ask them to allow Fahrhof to become the recipient of tree trimmings from 20 to 30 miles around Gestut Fahrhof. I was told that if I wanted the horses in the field give them a sizable pile of leaves and stems cut from trees in the normal pruning process.

This veterinarian said to me that the horses were craving fibrous, woody stems. He said that particularly when the soil was moist, the horses would pull up the roots of dandelions and other weeds and devour those ‘stemy’ plant understructures. He was as right as he could have been and the babies immediately fell in love with stacks of tree trimmings. The internal sand count fell dramatically to less than 20 grams per kilo.

There were several down sides to this idea and one was that we had to do quite a lot of cutting and hauling these branches. Then we had to clear the fields of the uneaten branches almost daily. There were large limbs that came along that had to be processed for the wood

pile. It was a good lesson for me and it certainly proved what the horses were looking for and how to give it to them without costing them heavy sand contamination.

We were not able to continue this project very long because after the death of Walther Jacobs, a certain bookkeeper felt that she was quite important to the operation. She didn’t like the sight of the branches in the corner of the field, and I suppose she was also was against the man hours required to conduct the project. She issued an order, however, and the addition of the tree trimmings was discontinued in about 1998.

Ultimately the Jacobs family took on about double the amount of land and reduced the size of the broodmare band, thus lessening the pressure on the fields. With extreme husbandry mostly conducted by Stefan Ullrich, the sand levels now apparent in the Fahrhof babies has been reduced to well less than 20 grams per kilo. While I would have accepted two or three of the recommended solutions, I did what I could.

It should be noted that the bone quality of the young adult racehorses has improved dramatically with the reduction of the sand. We have produced 28 championships in 20 years of my involvement with Gestut Fahrhof. There are still too many skeletal injuries in the young animals, but I credit the organization and the staff, especially Stefan Ullrich, for conducting effective sand control system.