Your horse ate WHAT?

Abnormal or unusual eating behavior is not uncommon in horses and may be of concern to a horse owner.  Foals frequently nibble at manure, which is one way the microbial population of the gut is established.  It does not look attractive, but may be normal investigative behavior.  Other unusual eating behavior includes chewing on fences or stall walls, eating bark off trees, chewing on their stable mate’s tails and eating dirt.  In some species, the term “pica” is used to indicate consuming unusual food.  Except for salt, and perhaps phosphorus, there has been limited information to document that horses have nutritional wisdom for selecting nutrients.  They can select and consume plants that taste better than other plants.

If a horse is demonstrating unusual eating behavior, the following check list might be useful in determining what factors may be driving the behavior:

  1. Does the horse have adequate long stem fiber available?  If the horse does not feel full or is bored, they will find something to chew on and consume.  Fences, stalls and trees may suffer!  If the horse is getting sufficient Calories to maintain body condition, but is not consuming enough dry matter to feel full, they will try to consume more of something and will look for things to nibble on.
  2. Do they have adequate salt available free choice?  Horses that do not have salt available will chew on a variety of objects seeking salt, such as tool handles or leather.  They may eat dirt where salt might be present in small quantities or where there are or have been ashes.   Wild animals seek out “salt licks” and consume bones.
  3. Do they have adequate mineral intake?  While the horse may not have specific mineral wisdom, abnormal consumption may be a good time to review macro and micro mineral intake to ensure their diet is balanced and they are receiving adequate amounts of these important micronutrients.
  4. Does the horse have ulcers?  There have been anecdotal reports of horses with ulcers seeking to consume fiber or dirt.
  5. Young horses cutting teeth may sometimes exhibit some unusual chewing behavior.  Young horses also like to explore and will nibble on or consume mop fibers, decorations, leather etc.

Anytime a horse is consuming unusual material, a thorough review of the diet is a good idea to make certain there is sufficient fiber, adequate minerals, including salt, and adequate protein/amino acid intake.  If boredom is an issue, increased exercise or the use of stall toys may be a good idea.  And of course, if your horse consumes something odd, or excessive amounts of something, make sure to contact your vet!

9 Replies to “Your horse ate WHAT?”

  1. Our horses eat dirt off the bank bhind our barn- we have been here 17 years and the horses have always loved that bank. I also have a draft x that ate a chicken finger at a horse show once.

  2. My (very healthy and well fed) POA enjoys any flavor of chips, and has on multiple occasions been known to enjoy ham, lettuce, mustard and onion sandwiches. I don’t think there is much he hasn’t tried to take away besides my health food bars!

  3. While unloading feed at the barn our Quarter horse Raven grabbed a bag of oranges and enjoyed 3 whole oranges before being discovered. All 3 horses have preferences and dislikes including apples, carrots, grapes, peppermints, lollipops, soda and watermelon.

  4. Great piece Roy. Just wanted to a add some experience. I was called to a TB farm in Hot Springs to respond to a problem reported the horses were eating the wood fence down. When I arrived I observed the horses chewing on the fence, and they had eaten somewhere between two inches and eight inches of chunks out of the fence. I did what you suggested, and recommended keeping free choice hay for these mares, and providing a free choice mineral. A month went by and no response, so I decided to check the grass hay. The hay was terrible, with a 4% protein value, and extremely high indigestible fiber. Eventually, after trying several other solutions, we changed hay to a much higher quality one. Within a few days the horse’s total hay intake went up by 20%, and they quit eating the fence. You may have a different viewpoint, but I ascertained the horses were just not being able to eating enough of the poor hay to satisfy their innate desire to chew. I have seen this scenario many times with stalled horse fed limited hay. By the way, we did not have this 100 mare farm until we were able to provide a solution to the fence eating. We gained a valuable client who referred us to multiple future clients. Most people just do not provide enough HIGH QUALITY roughage. Thanks for letting me chime in.

    1. Hi Johnny,

      Thank you for sharing that example. Great example of the need to observe what the horses are doing and evaluate the entire feeding program, not just one part of the program. If the horses are doing something unusual, there is probably a good reason lurking somewhere. It is the human’s responsibility to try to figure out what the horse is telling us. Forage testing followed by complete ration evaluation and some good judgment based on experience can help us figure out how to do what is best for the horses.

      Best wishes,
      Roy Johnson

  5. My first horse was well known at our county 4-H fair for taking lollipops out of the hands of small children that walked by her stall. She’d eat the candy and spit out the stick (most of the time). All of my horses enjoy potato chips, especially barbecue flavored Lays. We also have a tree by the barn yard that apparently tastes delicious, because my mom’s horse enjoys eating all of the branches that she can reach each spring as it’s budding. About the only foods my horses haven’t tried to take include peppermints (all of them HATE them…they turn into projectiles), citrus fruits, and deli meats.

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