You spend a lot of time, effort, and money into feeding your horse and keeping him healthy, but for some reason he keeps trying to eat things he not supposed to, and you’re not sure why he’s doing it. From prickly plants to materials that make up your barn, and an array of other oddities, some horses will make a meal out of anything. However, there are some serious issues that can come with this odd habit, that could lead to colic or cause long-term health complications.
[BEHAVIOR: GELDINGS THAT ACT LIKE STALLIONS]
Depending on what your horse eats and how much of it he eats, he may experience no issues and be completely fine. On the other hand, he could experience serious side effects that require veterinary attention and potentially run into issues for the rest of his life because of it.
Here I’ll go over some of the items your horse might be trying to eat around the barn and the reasons why he’s doing it. Then I’ll show you some of the methods you can use to help slow—and eventually stop—this odd behavior.
What is Pica?
The term your veterinarian might use to describe what your horse is doing is called pica, which is an eating disorder and means your horse is eating something that’s not usually considered to be food. Some of the items in this list you might be familiar with your horse eating, while others might come as a surprise. Even if you don’t think your horse is ingesting these things, it’s always a good idea to check your property and his enclosure for some of the more hazardous items and ensure that he can’t get into them if he tried.
Why he eats it: When a horse eats his own manure, it’s called coprophagy. And while it may seem disgusting to us, it’s actually very natural. In fact, a foal will eat his manure as a way to populate his digestive tract with beneficial bacteria, and this may be what your adult horse is trying to do. While it is natural, it’s not seen as typical behavior in adult horses and could be a sign that something else is wrong with him. The most common reason your horse is eating his own manure is because there is a lack of fiber in his diet. This is especially common if he’s fed restricted amounts of forage. Indigestible fiber passes through the digestive system and makes up the majority of feces. Therefore, if your horse’s diet lacks adequate digestible fiber, he might eat his own manure to increase his fiber intake. Fiber is important for correct functioning of the hindgut as it’s required to sustain the bacterial populations that reside there.
What to do: If your horse is eating manure, weigh him with a weight tape, then weigh the amount of hay you’re currently feeding him. As a general rule, you should be feeding at least 1.5% of his total body weight as forage each day. If he’s fed less than this amount because he’s overweight, talk to your veterinarian or equine nutritionist before increasing the amount of hay.
Why he eats it: While it’s frustrating when your horse eats the trees in or around his pasture, eating bark is perfectly natural. Horses actually evolved eating a wide range of plant material. Depending on the tree, during certain times of year the tree produces sap, further encouraging the behavior. However, sometimes your horse is chewing on tree bark because he’s bored or needs something to do.
What to do: First of all, make sure that all of the trees your horse has access to aren’t poisonous or harmful to him in any way. And if his beaver behavior is putting the tree at risk of dying, consider installing fencing around the tree so that it can no longer be reached. Most of the time trees serve a purpose, like providing shade or shelter to your horse, so you don’t want to risk losing them completely due to your horse’s eating habit. You can also consider giving your horse safe logs to chew on that have bark as a form of enrichment that’s less costly.
Poisonous Plants and Thorns
Why he eats them: Most horses know to steer clear of poisonous plants, eating them only when adequate quality feed is unavailable. Ideally your horse should never have access to poisonous plants, so become familiar with what kind of plants are poisonous to horses and ensure that you don’t have them anywhere on your property. While your horse might not have easy access to other parts of your property, if for some reason he gets loose, you don’t want to risk him getting into something he shouldn’t—which is why it’s good to avoid those kinds of plants all together. (This is also a good reminder to see what kind of plants might be poisonous to your dogs and cats, as well.)
What to do: Educate yourself and work to remove any noxious plants that your horse could have access to. One poisonous plant that’s difficult to eradicate is star thistle, which happens to be quite common in Western states. Like other poisonous plants, most horses typically leave this plant alone. However, if your horse does get into it, the thorns can cause problems for him. If you notice that your horse’s pastures do have star thistle in them, make sure to provide plenty of good forage for him to eat and check his mouth regularly for any spines.
Fences, Barn, or Stall Sides
Why he eats them: There are several reasons your horse might be eating your fencing, barn doors, or the sides of his stall. It could be a lack of fiber or minerals in his diet, or it could be from boredom. Horses evolved ranging large, open spaces eating almost constantly, and your horse might find confinement boring. In an attempt to relieve his boredom and fulfill his need to chew almost constantly, he gravitates to whatever is closest to him. If he doesn’t have access to forage, he’ll move on to the wooden surfaces that are within reach of him or easily accessible.
What to do: It’s common to want to coat surfaces with noxious-tasting substances to stop your horse’s chewing, but this will only temporarily stop his chewing issue and most likely won’t solve it. It can also result in other stereotypic behaviors, such as pacing and weaving. Obviously stall destruction is costly and needs to be stopped but try to understand the root cause. If your horse is bored and you’re able to provide him daily turnout, make sure to give him as much time outside as he can. When he’s in his stall you can provide alternative stimulation, like a stall toy, for enrichment. Be sure to feed enough hay so your horse has plenty to chew on. If he’s a fast eater, consider using a slow feeder to encourage him to eat smaller bites and increase chew time. If your horse is a known stall chewer or likes to eat dry wood, routinely check his mouth for splinters.
Why he eats it: Sodium is something your horse should be eating every day. In fact, a 1,000-pound horse needs roughly 10 grams, or about two tablespoons, of sodium a day. This amount increases with an active riding schedule and during the summer, when the weather is typically warmer and he’s sweating more frequently. Typically, there’s no reason to panic if your horse is chewing on his salt block. And generally, as long as your horse has plenty of fresh, clean water available, even quite high salt intakes are safe.
What to do: If you’re concerned about the amount of salt your horse is consuming, talk to your veterinarian and perhaps provide your horse with loose salt in his feed instead of a block to better regulate his sodium intake.
Why he eats it: Eating dirt is fairly common in horses; however, the reason is somewhat of a mystery. If your horse is constantly eating dirt, he might be searching for salt. To rule this out, provide your horse with daily access to sodium as suggested in the above paragraph.
What to do: It’s always worth checking your horse’s diet to ensure you’re adequately meeting his needs for the trace minerals that are often lacking in forage, such as copper and zinc. If he insists on regularly eating dirt, implementing a sand-clear protocol once a month is wise.
If you’ve worked to correct your horse’s eating behavior but can’t seem to solve the problem, consider investing in a muzzle. Muzzles vary in material and are constructed to limit the type of material your horse can bite. Some muzzles limit the amount he’s able to consume, while others prevent any intake. If you think that a muzzle is the right option for your horse, here are some of my dos and don’ts to using one.
Monitor your horse when he’s wearing a muzzle, especially as he’s acclimating to it.
Leave a muzzle on for more than a few hours at a time.
Pay attention to the fit of your horse’s muzzle and look for any skin irritation or abrasions.
Let burrs and stickers accumulate on any fleece coverings.
Check for foreign objects or debris lodged in the muzzle box.
Use a muzzle that doesn’t fit properly, as it can cause panic, accident, or injury.