My Nephew, the Poo Swirler, or Why Sand Isn’t Good for Horses

Ah yes, a proud moment. My brother sent me this video clip of my nephew, better known as his son, helping him out by swirling an equine exam sleeve filled with poo. The questions I had likely mimic your own, but here they are nonetheless:

  • Why is the nephew swirling poo?
  • Does he swirl poo very often, and if so, does he always have such a good time doing it?
  • When did the bag break? Because even though the video clip doesn’t show the bag breaking, you just know that it did.

Please note that I was not surprised in the least to find that my brother had poo in a bag. He’s an equine veterinarian, so shoulder-length gloves and poo are pretty much daily happenings for him. I’m just happy when the bags stay outside. (Remember, lowering your expectations sometimes increases the odds of said expectations being exceeded.)

When I asked Matt why he needed to have poo swirled in the first place, it turns out that he had a pretty good reason. A client’s horse had diarrhea and was losing weight, so Matt was doing a simple test to see if the horse had ingested sand. After the exam, he retained some of the poo, turned the exam sleeve inside out, added water, had the nephew swirl and twirl, and then let everything settle. If there was sand at the bottom of the glove, then the horse likely had sand in its system. If a horse has too much sand in its system, it can cause chronic diarrhea, weight loss, or even colic. In areas with sandy soil–which describes a lot of places in the world–it is easy for horses to eat sand simply by grazing or eating off the ground.

What should you do if you find that your horse has sand in its system? Easy: decrease or eliminate the horse’s intake of sand. Here are some helpful tips to help you reach that goal:

  • If you feed your horses on sandy ground, use feeders or rubber mats It is better to feed horses at ground level as it results in more even wear on their teeth.
  • Work to clear the horse’s system of sand by feeding psyllium husk or Metamucil, high-quality alfalfa hay, and good roughage in general. Adding fiber to a horse’s diet has the same benefit that it does for humans. If a horse has sand, feed psyllium for about 45-60 days and then discontinue its use for 30 days. After that period, feed psyllium as a preventative for 5-7 days each month going forward. (See the following note about psyllium usage in horses following this list.)
  • Most importantly, manage your horse’s intake of sand. Watch your horse closely, particularly for continued weight loss, diarrhea, or episodes of colic.

A little about psyllium and its usage in horses. Horses are herbivores, so they contain gut bacteria that can break down psyllium. However, while psyllium is useful, it is a poor source of food nutrients and will lose its laxative properties after about 45-60 days. This is why the 30-day suspension in usage is recommended, and then preventative feeding for 5-7 days each month.

So, the nephew was swirling poo because it seemed like a good time, because it helped his dad out, and because that simple, low-tech test is the easiest and best way to determine if your horse has ingested sand. This entire exchange, however, makes me think that I need to send my nephew some different toys or that I need to rethink what I’m sending him altogether. If swirling poo is your idea of a good time on a Friday night, perhaps we all need to broaden our definition of what we consider to be “fun.”

And yes, the bag did eventually break, but there is good news on that front: breakage was outside and in an area devoid of high-value targets!

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