Horses are amazing, beautiful, useful animals. Their digestive system however is complex, relatively fragile, and totally inefficient (which is why their poo makes great fertiliser). Monitoring poo is a really helpful tool to assist with maintaining a horse in peak health.
Horse digestive systems are designed to be grazing most of the day. They should have access to ‘pick’ almost constantly. If they don’t have any food in their tummies, the stomach acid can ‘splash around’ and cause ulcers. This is why horses constantly want to graze, and owners need to be wary if their horse doesn’t want to eat.
Unfortunately in our part of the country, the rainfall isn’t such that we have grazing all year round. In fact our particular area is really, really sandy. Sandy enough that if you added water it would be like the beach. While there are some benefits to this, it introduces certain challenges to keep horses on. Not all horses mind you. I had horses on this property for 10 years without a problem before getting the Clydesdales, but given the draught horses are like over grown ponies and eat every scrap of food they lay their eyes on, we have been fighting a constant battle with the sand.
When the grass germinates it is fresh, tasty and really sweet. The horses like it at this stage, so eat it. As the ground is so sandy, they get the grass roots and all. With the roots comes the sand. Also when they pick at hay, they pick up sand. Or when they eat their hard food, and spread it around, then go back and pick up all of the bits that they dropped. Basically all of these little bits of grit they pick up get swallowed and sit in their gut. The sand accumulates, and in some cases set like concrete in the bottom of the horses gut.
It gets to a point, if this sand isn’t regularly encouraged to move along it forms an obstruction in the gut, resulting in colic, and a very dangerous situation for the horse. It also causes other problems, as you can imagine, having the effect on the digestive tract, of sand paper as it moves along the system.
Poo is a great indication that the digestive system is working as it should. Poos should be soft nuggets that may crumble when they hit the ground, but mostly maintain their nugget shape. A healthy horse, with constant grazing will do 12-16 poos a day- sometimes more. If a poo is soft, or looking like a cow patty, it will cause me to grab a bag, get a sample, mix with water and see if any sand settles in the corner of the bag. I’m proud to say my kids also inspect poos closely now too!
A few months after bringing our clydesdales home, we had our first bout of sand colic. Unaware of what was going on, as we hadn’t had the sand issue with our other horses, we noticed that Angus was not right. He had been doing very sloppy poos but I didn’t know what was causing them but then he started laying down and showing signs of pain. The vet arrived and drenched him, while she was here, he did a poo that was almost 100% sand. It was touch and go for a few days, but luckily he pulled through. Henry followed suit a couple of weeks later.
Still unaware of the enormity of our problem, we had a few more episodes of sand colic. Certain times of year were more problematic than others, with the worst time of year being December through to April. At our wits end, we found the Clydesdales a paddock in the hills, where there was no sand, lots of grass, and the chance to let their stomachs heal. I believe this saved them.
On their return to our property, we hoped, and thought that they had grown out of it. While we had put some preventative measures in place, it simply was not enough. Within the year they had started having regular sand episodes again. It was after yet another poo post on FB, that a horse nutritionalist friend pm’d and offered advice..
This prompted me to completely change their management . We constructed yards, and introduced a round bale for them to have constant pick. We introduced Alkapellets (a type of pellet, designed to assist with regulating acid levels in the gut) to their feed, and continued to feed microbeet. We commenced twice daily hard feeds, and still regularly fed psyllium- at a minimum once a month, sometimes more if the poo dictates there may be some sand starting to move. Given the enormity of the problem we had, we have no choice by to limit the amount of time they spend out of their yard. We have to limit their access to grazing on the sandy ground, so need to ensure they get regular exercise. This much time in yards means there is an awful lot of poo picking to be done morning and night, but also gives me a chance to inspect it.
While for now it seems that we are managing the issue, we are constantly on guard. Should one of the horses be having a lazy day, and laying down sunbaking at a time that isn’t ‘usual’, I will monitor them much more closely for the rest of the day. It does make for increased stress levels, and does at times take some of the enjoyment out of horse ownership, but it is something we have to be mindful of for the well being of our horses.
If you come out on a pleasure ride with us, you may find I end up rambling on about poo…. I hope this explains why!