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When my granddaughter and I were watching our horses in a paddock, she noticed one eating dirt. She asked me if eating dirt is typical for horses, I wasn’t sure, so I decided to do some research.
The most common reasons horses’ eat dirt are a salt deficiency, boredom, ulcers, change in diet, or intestinal parasites (worms). Horses may eat a small amount of soil for no particular reason, and this is normal behavior.
“Why does my horse eat dirt,” is a question that comes up from time to time. Most people have a quick and short answer. But why a horse eats dirt may entail more than a short reply.
Reasons horses eat dirt.
A bored horse may eat dirt.
Yes, horses that get bored or depressed and eat dirt. Tired and sad horses do strange things, like cribbing. See our article on cribbing here.
Horses are natural roamers and grazers, spending long days munching on grass and roaming. They are open-range animals. When we take them from this environment and put them in a stall, they get depressed.
A study of horses taken from the wild and kept in enclosures noted severe behavioral changes. One modification was a change in eating habits, which included eating dirt.
To bring a horse out of its mental funk, give him as much turnout time as possible. Some other suggestions you can try: provide a companion animal, put toys in his stall, or play music.
You have to be inventive, and horses are individuals, a once size fits all approach doesn’t work. But knowing the cause of the problem is the first step to combating the issue.
A horse with ulcers might eat dirt
Eating dirt can be a sign a horse has gastric ulcers. An ulcer is a wound in the stomach. Horses in stressful situations, such as highly intensive training or competitive showing, are the most likely animals to suffer from gastric ulcers.
Some common symptoms of gastric ulcers include weight loss, irritability, lack of energy, loss of appetite, and cribbing or eating dirt. The cribbing and eating dirt may provide relief to the ulcer in the stomach. This hasn’t been proven scientifically.
Changing a horse’s diet can cause horses to eat dirt.
Sometimes a horse needs a transition period when changing feed. A horse’s digestive system is sensitive and needs time to adjust when introducing a new type of feed or hay.
The best method is to mix small amounts of new feed with the feed the horse is currently eating. Try a mix of 80% of the current food, with 20% of the new feed for a few days. Increase the percentage of the new feed over two weeks until you reach 100% of the new feed.
During the transition period, keep an eye on your horses’ weight and eating pattern. If he begins to drop weight, quits eating or his coat starts to look shabby, consider adjusting his feed or slow down the transition. Sometimes it can take a month or longer for a horse to change his diet successfully.
Make changes to a horse’s diet slowly.
If you intend to change both hay and feed, pick one to start the process. Changing hay first would be the preferred choice. A change in diet can lead to colic, founder, or other health issues.
Horses will eat dirt because of a transition to a new diet for a couple of reasons: 1) They new feed doesn’t have the minerals the horse needs, and 2) the horse is eating fast and then gets bored.
Horses munch on grass hay throughout the day. Chewing on hay keeps a horse occupied, grass pellets are eaten must faster, leading to a bored horse. When bored, a horse may eat dirt. To combat boredom allow more turnout time and exercise.
Internal parasites can cause a horse to eat dirt.
Internal parasites have been linked to horses eating dirt. Internal parasites cause colic and contribute to respiratory, digestive, and performance problems.
The most common parasites that infect horses are bots, strongyles, ascarids (roundworms), tapeworms, and pinworms. All horse owners should have a deworming protocol for each horse they own.
The link between worms and eating dirt isn’t clear.
The following are some essential steps you can take to control worms at your facility:
- keep pastures in good shape, not overgrazed and mowed;
- during hot, dry weather, disperse manure piles;
- cross-graze pastures with other species.
- When feeding hay and grain use raised containers,
- keep stalls, and paddocks clean.
- Keep your horses’ water source clean.
The reason horses with worms eat dirt is not completely understood.
Is Eating Dirt Bad For a Horse?
When my granddaughter and I watched our horse eat dirt, it made me consider putting him in a stall to prevent him from getting sick. But I wasn’t sure if eating dirt was bad for him, so I decided to find out.
Eating a small amount of dirt isn’t harmful to a horse and may provide a benefit. Horses kept in poor conditions without access to proper nutrients can supplement their diet by eating dirt.
Some soils have minerals such as iron, sodium, and calcium, nutrients they would usually get through a healthy diet. If you notice your horse eating soil, check your feeding regime.
Make sure you are providing the nutrient your horse needs. You can read our article on what a horse eats to learn about horses’ proper nutrient requirements. There is also a weight chart within the article providing the nutrient amounts a horse requires.
If your horse has a healthy diet and continues to consume dirt, he likely has a medical condition that warrants contacting a veterinarian.
Eating sand can cause “sand colic.”
Horses eat sand for the same reasons they eat dirt, boredom, change in diet, internal pesticides, mineral deficiency, or ulcers. Eating sand can lead to colic in horses, sometimes called sand colic.
Horses suffering from sand colic lose weight, have diarrhea, and show general distress signs related to colic. You can learn more about colic in our article here.
Sand can tear the walls of a horses’ intestines.
When a horse eats sand, most will pass through the intestines in their stools, but some sand remains in the horse’s intestine. The sand builds up in the lower portion of the organs.
The abrasive nature of the sand tears the intestine walls and causes impaction, which leads to cramping, diarrhea, and constipation. If a horse continues eating sand, total impaction is possible.
Sand colic can be life-threatening. If you believe your horse has sand colic contact your veterinarian and have your horse checked right away. Sand colic, if caught early enough, is treatable. This is a good technical article on Sand Colic and treatments.
Horses aren’t the only animals that eat dirt.
The technical term for the craving or eating of dirt is geophagia. Geophagia is not restricted to horses; other animals and even humans eat soil. This strange habit is related to various factors, some of which are not obvious.
Why Do Horses Need a Salt Block?
Horses need salt for proper organ and bodily function. Salt is vital to a horse’s health; it regulates body fluids, aids digestion, helps cell function, and more. Horses lose salt sweating, and this sweat must be replaced. See this research article on electrolytes and hydration in horses to learn more.
Horses eat dirt when they lack salt in their diet. Horses need to take in salt daily, the amount varies by climate but usually between 2 to 6 ounces is adequate. Horses can get small amounts of salt from grass and hay but not an amount sufficient to replace the loss in sweat.
If you notice your horse showing signs of fatigue, loss of appetite, and their coat looking rough, it likely has a salt deficiency. Salt deficiency leads to a risk of impaction and colic.
An excellent method to prevent salt depletion is by giving a horse free access to a salt block. Horses with a source of salt are less likely to eat dirt. To find out how much weight a horse loses during a single race, check out this article.
Horse mineral blocks provide essential elements
Horse mineral blocks are mostly comprised of salt however, they do have trace amounts of the following:
- Copper: Copper is essential in a horse’s diet. It helps to utilize iron and develop connective tissue. A deficiency in copper leads to anemia.
- Zinc: Zinc is vital; it affects many body processes, including skin, growth rate, tissue repair, reproduction, and immune systems.
- Manganese: Manganese is essential in bone formation. It also assists the digestion of carbohydrates and lipids.
- Cobalt: Cobalt is used to make vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 facilitates protein synthesis and carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
- Iron: Iron is essential in a horse’s diet. It is needed to transport oxygen throughout a horse’s blood. It also helps oxygen into a horses’ muscles. Iron intake should be monitored, too much can be harmful.
- Iodine: Iodine promotes the proper function of the thyroid gland.
- Sodium Chloride: Sodium Chloride is another term used to describe salt. Salt is a vital component of a horse’s diet. (See above)
Most commercial feeds provide all the trace minerals a horse needs. A mineral block won’t harm a horse but doesn’t offer much benefit. If the mineral block is the only source of salt for your horse, then it could be beneficial. Otherwise, it is a wasted expense.
The most likely reason a horse eats dirt is that he became bored, lacked salt, has ulcers, has worms, or there was a change in his diet.
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