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  • September 09, 2021 4 min read

    Psyllium husks are the ‘go-to’ remedy for a build-up of sand in the horse’s digestive tract.  They are often used by vets to actually treat mild cases of sand colic but how effective are they in the prevention of sand colic in the first instance?

    The answer is that psyllium husk is helpful as a part of an overall management routine.  As with all things equine, there is no substitute for good husbandry, and psyllium husk is part of that regimen.


    How does psyllium husk prevent colic?

    Psyllium husks can remove a build-up of sand when present in the intestine.  The idea is that they stop the sand increasing to a level where it causes a problem, gently removing most if not all of it.


    Grazing horses on sandy soil

    Sometimes grazing horses on sandy soiled pastures is unavoidable.  Grass growth is never as good on sandy soil and once the horses have had their fill, what is left will be sparse and poor exposing bare patches of earth.

    Some horses are more likely to eat soil than others.  In a herd of horses on the same paddocks, only some will exhibit a build-up of sand in the gut, others less so or not really at all.  Also, some horses tolerate sand in the gut better than others who seem more sensitive.  It is not uncommon to have one horse with sand colic which then results in a herd manure test.  There may well be other horses within the group who actually demonstrate more sand in their intestine but they are not the one who has succumbed to colic.


    How do psyllium husks actually work?

    Psyllium husks are a natural source of fibre derived from the seeds of the Plantago Ovata plant.  Many people have heard of psyllium husks as an essential ingredient in Metamucil which is a product used to treat diarrhoea and constipation in humans. In horses, psyllium not only increases the motility of the gut but breaks down to create a sticky gel-like substance to which the sand can adhere before moving on through the hindgut and being eventually expelled as manure.


    Can psyllium husks form part of a program to prevent sand colic?

    Psyllium certainly has a part to play but it is not a substitute for good pasture and horse management.  As part of a thoughtful and professional routine however, psyllium is a useful tool in the fight against sand build up in the horse’s intestine.

    If psyllium is used preventatively, vets recommend that it is administered intermittently rather than continuously.  If the horse’s gut is permanently exposed to psyllium, the husks will start to lose their efficacy.

    A standard interval for using psyllium is around once a month for five days.  This, alongside, good paddock management, will help prevent the build-up of sand in the digestive tracts of the resident herd.


    Options for horses grazing on sandy pastures?

    • Try and rotate the grazing so the sward is as dense as possible.  Grass growth on sandy soil is, by definition, poorer so paddocks need more rest, care and attention to ensure good growth
    • If the horses are on spartan grazing, supplement their turnout with additional forage such as hay or haylage.  Horses who have access to a good source of ad-lib fibre and are following healthy eating routines are far less likely to colic irrespective of the type of soil in their paddocks.  The continuous feeding of long fibre in itself seems to limit the accumulation of sand in the horse’s intestine
    • When feeding hay or hard feed to horses living out 24/7, try to avoid feeding on the ground but bring the grain or hay to chest height
    • Do not turn horses out onto pasture which has experienced heavy rain after a prolonged dry period
    • Observe carefully the type and quantity of the horse’s droppings so you are able to quickly detect any changes.  This is clearly harder with a grazing herd than with horses which are stabled for part of the day


    How to check horse poo for sand?

    Take around six balls of dropping and place them in a bucket around a quarter filled with water.  Stir the droppings until they have broken down completely and let the mixture settle for around a quarter of an hour.  Sieve the resultant liquid separating the water from the sand granules which will be heavier and should naturally sink to the bottom.

    Most horses will show some signs of sand or earth in their droppings particularly during the warm summer months.  Some horses tolerate a small amount without demonstrating any signs of disturbance in the gut.  However, anything more than a teaspoon of sand should be a red flag and a cause for concern.


    Know the signs of colic

    Never overlook the early signs and symptoms of colic as this is your window of opportunity to intervene.  Much success in colic surgery is linked to early intervention.  Horses that have been colicking for a long time are far less likely to have a happy outcome.

    Don’t assume you have sand colic even if all the circumstances dictate that it's likely.  Never feed psyllium before calling the vet or ahead of his arrival.  Only the vet can diagnose exactly what type of colic your horse is suffering from and whether psyllium is an appropriate treatment choice or not.  Sand that has accumulated to the point of a large obstruction may have to be surgically removed.


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