The lulling sound of waves slowly rolling in and out. A nice, sandy beach. Great scenarios vacation-wise, but a crisis in the making when applied to your horse’s gut sounds and abdominal radiographic post cards. Diagnosis: Sand colic.

Sand colic occurs when the horse ingests sand along with regular rations into the intestinal tract. "Sand colic is typically seen in horses that live in dry, sandy areas," says Andie Dee, DVM, of B.W. Furlong and Associates in New Jersey. "You can’t always hear sand when it’s in the intestinal tract, but when you do, you’ll never forget it," Dee says. "It sounds like the tide rolling in and rolling out."

"Sand colic is abdominal pain caused by an intestinal obstruction, i.e., an impaction," states George Martin, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, and Professor and Section Chief Equine Medicine and Surgery, Louisiana State University. "In most impaction colics, the obstruction is caused by feed, but in sand colic it is caused by sand."

Dee says that some horses seem to be more prone to sand colic than others, even when sharing the same environment. "We don’t know why. It may have something to do with the ability of an individual’s intestinal motility to keep things moving along. Or, it may be that one individual tends to pick up more sand than another."

While age is not a factor, weanlings, yearlings, and sometimes nursing foals are more inclined to eat sand preferentially, points out Terry Swanson, DVM, CEO of Littleton Large Animal Clinic in Colorado and a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.