Why might my horse eat dirt?

If you're like me, equine nutrition is one of your major concerns when caring for your horse. The role of a good diet can never be underplayed. Great nutrition means a healthier horse and leads to all those things you demand: shiny coat, strong hooves and on demand energy whenever it’s called for.

Something that concerns owners is when their horse starts to eat things that aren't really considered horse food. It is not uncommon for a horse to eat dirt when out at pasture. But what does this mean? Will it hurt him? Can and should I try to stop it?

Abnormal Eating Patterns In Horses.

Horse can lick dirt when they are bored

When out-to-pasture, horses have access to a wide variety of inedible substances. In younger horses and foals, it is not uncommon to see them play with dirt, plants and even their own droppings. In this scenario, they are not actually eating the bits and bobs they come across but testing “mouth feel,” reflexes and their mother’s reactions

Naturally, it can be alarming if you suddenly notice your horse licking or eating dirt from the ground. Once described as the result of a nutritional deficiency, this has long been proven to be a myth. Most horses actually have an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals. Pica - the technical term for eating non-food substances - is rarely due to imbalance of nutrients. It is actually the result of other factors including boredom. Your first concern, however, should be to stop the behavior as quickly as possible to limit the ingestion of mud or sand, as this can lead to sand colic.

How Do I Stop My Horse From Noshing On Dirt?

Provided there are no other issues present such as weight loss and poor condition, it is most likely your horse is either hungry or bored. If you have any concerns as to his health, your veterinarian will be happy to examine your horse to verify everything’s ok. If your horse is licking and eating dirt, there a few things you can try to keep your horse occupied and prevent him ingesting too much.

Increase the amount of forage fed: in the wild, the horse will eat around 22 hours out of 24. In domestic settings, they are often faced with smaller paddocks with limited forage or long swaths of time in the stall. If given hay in the stall or additional forage in a grazed down field, the horse can often munch through their rations very quickly. Soaking hay can help remove energy from hay so that you can increase hay quantities, safely. If your horse can have the ration increased without excess weight gain, this should be your first choice.

  • If the horse is on limited turnout, increase the time the horse is at pasture: this helps relieve boredom.
  • Introduce friends! If your horse is kept on her own, licking dirt can be a sign of boredom and loneliness. Where possible, keep your horse in a group or with a companion. Iif this isn’t possible, for example, if you have a stallion, try to graze your horse where he can see others divided by adequate fencing.
  • Find inventive ways to make hay last longer. Boredom can set in when the horse eats her forage too quickly, so try different methods for making the daily ration last. Small hole haynets, wrapping hay in two haynets to make it more difficult to pull out, dividing the hay into a number of nets and feeding them throughout the day/ in different places around the stable or using chopped straw for bucket feeds can extend feeding times.
  • Increase your horse’s exercise. Exercise not only releases endorphins, keeps the horse fit and relieves boredom but it helps tire him out so he will rest quietly when back at the barn. Not only should this help stop the horse from eating dirt, but it gives you more time to have fun together.
  • Don’t become alarmed when you see foals eating manure. Foals actually need to consume manure to build up sufficient quantities of the micro-flora that are responsible for good immune health.

Licking and eating dirt is a behavior which should be addressed in horses as it can lead to fatal sand colic. With our hints and tips, you will soon have a horse eating his normal feed again.

*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club