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Why Horses Eat Dirt and How to Address It: Mystery Solved!

Last updated: December 31, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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When my granddaughter and I were watching our horses in a paddock, she noticed one eat dirt. She asked me if eating dirt is typical for horses; her question took me by surprise. Honestly, it’s not something I had given much thought to, so I embarked on a quest to find out.

It turns out the act of horses eating dirt, known as geophagia, is not uncommon. This behavior can be triggered by several factors, such as dietary deficiencies, boredom, health issues, or even simple curiosity. In some instances, it’s just a part of their normal conduct.

Understanding why horses eat dirt is more than just a trivia answer; it’s about safeguarding our horses’ well-being. If you’re a horse owner or even just a horse enthusiast, you’ll want to keep reading. The information you find might just help you provide the best care for your equine friend.

Picture of a horse eating dirt.
A horse eating dirt is a common sign on horse farms.

Why Horses Eat Dirt: Understanding Geophagy in Horses

You may have noticed horses in a paddock eating dirt and wondered if this is cause for concern. In this section, I explain the reasons behind this behavior, known as geophagy, and what it means for the health and care of your horses.

The Risks of Eating Soil

  • Health Concerns: Consuming large amounts of dirt, especially sandy soil, can lead to health issues like sand colic.
  • Veterinary Consultation: It’s crucial to seek professional advice if your horse frequently eats dirt or sand.

Nutritional Management

  • Balanced Diet: Ensure your horse has access to a diet rich in necessary forage, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Mineral Supplementation: Using mineral blocks, such as Redmond rock or salt licks, can help fulfill mineral deficiencies.

Environmental and Behavioral Factors

  • Enrichment: Increase forage availability and provide regular exercise to reduce boredom-induced geophagy.
  • Socialization: Allowing your horse to interact with others can also help mitigate this behavior.

Monitoring and Care

  • Ongoing Observation: Some horses may persist in eating dirt despite dietary changes.
  • Regular Check-Ups: Regular dental and health check-ups are vital for early detection of related issues.

Geophagy in horses often indicates a need for dietary improvements or environmental enrichment. A well-rounded diet, supplemented with necessary minerals, and a stimulating environment are key to preventing this behavior.

If you notice persistent geophagy, consulting with an equine veterinarian is essential for tailored care and management. Sharing experiences and knowledge with fellow horse enthusiasts can also contribute to a deeper understanding and better care for our equine friends.

Picture of horses in a dirt paddock with salt blocks.  Horses eat dirt when they are deficient of minerals.
Horses in a dirt paddock licking a salt block.

Enhancing Equine Well-being: Strategies for Optimal Horse Care and Nutrition

Enhancing your horse’s environment with slow-feed hay nets, mineral blocks, and interactive toys can promote healthier chewing habits. These enrichments not only keep them engaged but also help avert health issues related to improper eating behaviors.

As caretakers, we must be proactive in keeping up with equine research to provide the best care for our horses. If you suspect your horse’s dirt-eating habit stems from nutrient deficiencies or other health concerns, seeking advice from a veterinarian or equine nutritionist is crucial. Collaboratively, you can create a tailored management plan to correct dietary imbalances and ensure your horse’s nutritional needs are met.

Picture of a horse licking a salt block which is sign he may have a salt deficiency.
Horse licking a hanging salt block.

Monitoring your horse’s health, whether they are stabled, pastured, or experience a combination of both, is imperative. Regular check-ups enable you to quickly identify and resolve issues like nutrient deficiencies or pica. The field of equine research is continually evolving, enhancing our understanding of horse care. Applying this knowledge is key to ensuring the longevity and well-being of our horses.

Staying alert to your horse’s health needs and maintaining communication with equine health experts are essential steps in responsible horse care. This approach ensures your horse’s well-being, both in the stable and in the field.

Remember, responsible horse ownership extends beyond day-to-day care. It involves a commitment to continuous learning and staying informed about the latest in horse health and management. Whether you’re exploring new horse products, seeking professional guidance, or expanding your knowledge, embracing ongoing education is fundamental to the welfare of your equine companions.

Picture of a horse licking a mineral block while in a paddock.
Horse licking a mineral block in a pasture.

Understanding Why Horses Eat Dirt: Identifying the Causes

Horses eat dirt for various reasons, including boredom, health issues like ulcers, dietary changes, and internal parasites. Understanding these causes is crucial for horse owners to provide appropriate care and prevent potential health problems.

Boredom and Depression

  • Behavioral Changes: Horses, being natural roamers and grazers, may eat dirt when bored or depressed, especially if confined in stalls.
  • Environmental Enrichment: To mitigate this, provide ample turnout time, companions, toys, or even play music for stimulation.

Gastric Ulcers

  • Health Indicators: Dirt eating can be a symptom of gastric ulcers, particularly in horses under stress from intensive training or competition.
  • Symptoms and Relief: Common signs include weight loss, irritability, and lack of energy. Eating dirt might offer temporary relief, though this is not scientifically proven.

Dietary Transitions

  • Sensitive Digestive Systems: Horses need time to adjust to new feeds, making gradual transitions essential.
  • Transition Strategy: Start by mixing a small portion of the new feed with the current one, gradually increasing the new feed’s proportion over two weeks.
  • Monitoring: Watch for changes in weight, appetite, and coat condition, adjusting the diet as necessary.

Diet and Boredom

  • Nutritional Needs: Ensure the new diet meets all mineral requirements to prevent dirt eating.
  • Combatting Boredom: Provide more turnout time and exercise, as horses eating quickly may turn to dirt out of boredom.

Internal Parasites

  • Health Risks: Parasites like bots, strongyles, ascarids, tapeworms, and pinworms can lead horses to eat dirt.
  • Preventive Care: Maintain a regular deworming protocol to address and prevent parasite-related issues.

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.
Picture of two horses in a paddock, one seems to be eating dirt.
Two horses in a paddock with no grass to graze.

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 nutrients 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.

YouTube video

Why Do Horses Need a Salt Block?

When watching our horse eat dirt, I noticed he often licked the dirt like a salt block. This made me think about salt and also wonder why 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.

Picture of a horse eating hay from a net.
Our horses eating hay from a hanging bag.

Conclusion: Why Do Horses Eat Dirt?

The phenomenon of horses eating dirt, known as geophagia, can be attributed to various factors, including nutrient deficiencies, health risks like sand colic, behavioral causes such as boredom, and the need for careful monitoring and appropriate care.

Addressing these issues involves providing a balanced diet, ensuring access to essential minerals, and observing your horse’s behavior for any changes. Understanding and responding to these factors is crucial for maintaining the health and well-being of your equine companions.

We encourage you to share your experiences and solutions regarding equine geophagia. Your insights could be invaluable to fellow horse enthusiasts facing similar challenges. Join the conversation and help us build a community of informed and proactive horse caretakers.

Share your stories in the comments below or on our social media platforms. Let’s learn from each other and work towards healthier, happier horses.

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