If you catch your horse grazing on dirt or other debris in his paddock, you might be alarmed. However, in most cases, this behavior is nothing to worry about – in fact, it might even be a good thing!
Why Do Horses Eat Dirt? Geophagia, or “eating dirt”, is a common behavior in both domesticated and wild horses. It’s a natural part of their digestive process, and while it may look strange to us, there’s nothing strange about it to them.
Here are 9 reasons why your horse might be munching on dirt, and what you can do about it.
1. They may need minerals.
Soil (and therefore dirt) is rich in minerals such as iron and salt. In Australia, scientists took soil samples from different areas where horses were eating dirt. These sites contained higher levels of iron and copper, indicating that perhaps the horses were looking for minerals.
However, more research is needed to find out if this was the only reason the horses were eating dirt in these areas, or if there is more to the story.
Regardless, horses that are lacking in minerals or that are otherwise nutrient-deficient may be eating dirt to fill the gaps in their diets. Make sure your horse’s feed is properly supplemented – though, this usually isn’t a problem for your average pasture pony.
2. They need microbes.
Horses are natural foragers – they must consume vast quantities of grass or hay to stay healthy. Their digestive systems contain special microorganisms called microbes which help them break down these fibrous foods.
Different kinds of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and yeasts work together to produce digestive enzymes and break down difficult-to-digest plants and grasses.
Because soil contains these microbes, horses may nibble on the dirt in their pasture to balance out their digestive systems. They’re often found in the roots of plants as well, which is why horses may have to dig a little to find them.
Humans have complicated gut microbiomes too – but we usually opt for a nice probiotic or fortified yogurt instead.
3. They’re thirsty.
Soil contains water and salt. A thirsty horse may eat the dirt in his pasture if his trough is empty, and the salt in the dirt can make him even thirstier.
Always make sure your horse has access to fresh, clean water. Dehydration can be dangerous, and cause all sorts of health problems.
4. They’re trying to grind down their teeth.
Because horses are constantly eating rough foods, their teeth are constantly being filed down. If a horse is grinding his teeth improperly in an unnatural way (say, on fence posts or stall doors), that can lead to all sorts of dental and health problems.
Dirt contains hard particles, such as small rocks or sticks. These particles help file down a horse’s teeth in a more natural, even pattern. Horses kept in a pasture often don’t need to have their teeth floated as often as their stabled counterparts.
5. They’re hungry.
With nothing to eat in a bare pasture, a hungry horse may resort to eating dirt. If your horse is getting enough forage, try to spread it out throughout the day.
Don’t just drop his hay all at once – try feeding a few times a day, to avoid binging. And, always make sure that your equine friend is getting enough proper nutrition.
6. Their stomach is upset.
A horse with ulcers, parasites, or just an upset stomach may eat dirt, looking to assuage their discomfort. Clay, which is often found in top-level soil, may have an added benefit of “sticking” to toxins and removing them from the body. So, it’s theoretically possible that your horse is looking for clay to pass something through his system.
If you think that your horse may have ulcers or parasites, call your veterinarian right away, as these can require special treatment.
7. They need fiber.
Fiber keeps things moving in the digestive tract. Horses that are lacking in fiber may eat dirt, chew on rails, or strip bark from trees. Ensure that your horse is getting enough roughage in his diet to keep things moving along and prevent colic.
8. They’re bored.
One of the most common reasons that horses may eat dirt? They’re bored! In the wild, horses spend all day foraging and searching for food. In a comfortable stable, their food is conveniently brought to them all at once, without any effort.
Keeping a horse’s mind stimulated with toys, training, or extra exercise time is an important part of maintaining good mental health.
9. There’s been a change in routine or management.
If your pasture puff was cooped up all winter in a barn, and you’ve set him running free again – he might try to make up for lost dirt-eating time. Changes in location, feeding schedule, owners, or herdmates can cause some odd horse behavior.
If you notice that your horse is eating a large amount of dirt at once, or he’s exhibiting other odd behavior, call your veterinarian. However, he might just need a little more time to adjust to new changes in his routine.
Geophagia is generally good!
Eating dirt is generally not harmful. In fact, it’s a natural way for horses to adjust something in their bodies. Whether they need some extra minerals, or balance out their gut biomes, or just file down their teeth a little bit more, eating dirt solves a lot of small problems very easily – often without their owners even noticing.
But, sometimes it’s cause for concern.
Horses that suddenly start eating vast quantities of dirt are at risk for colic. If your horse gleefully gorges himself on dirt the minute he’s let out of the stable, pay attention for other more worrisome symptoms.
If your horse is showing signs of colic (pawing at his belly, sweating excessively, weird gut sounds, rolling, changes in appetite or elimination, etc.), call your veterinarian right away.
Colic should always be treated as an emergency, but most horses can recover from mild cases with proper care.
- Impaction colic. This occurs when there’s a blockage in the digestive tract, namely the colon. Impaction is a serious issue that must be assessed by a veterinarian, and sometimes requires surgery to correct. If your horse is known to eat shavings, large quantities of dirt, or other non-foodstuffs, consider replacing his bedding with rubber flooring.
- Sand colic. Horses that are kept on loose, sandy soil are at risk for sand colic. Sand is gritty and coarse, and it can irritate the lining of the intestines. If your horse is spending most of his time on sandy soil, try keeping his food off the ground.
What you can do to stop it.
While eating a little dirt every day is healthy for horses, you may still want to limit your horse’s intake. Here are some tips for curbing the habit:
- Bust the boredom. Make sure your horse is getting enough exercise, interaction, and playtime. Keeping your horse’s mind engaged will help ward off a wide variety of problems. Consider adding a playful pasturemate to keep your horse occupied when you’re not around.
- Maintain good pasture management. Ideally, horses should be kept on well-managed pastures with room to graze and run. Even if your horse’s outdoor time is limited, ensure that his accommodations are adequate. Dry, dusty, neglected pastures with poor soil quality may invite trouble.
- Ensure proper nutrition and feeding set-ups. Try to avoid feeding your horse on the ground and use a manger, hay rack, or slow-feeder. Make sure your horse is getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs from his feed.
- Consider psyllium. Consult with your veterinarian before adding laxatives to your horse’s diet, but psyllium can help dislodge sand granules from your horse’s intestines. If he’s eating too much sand, a psyllium supplement can help keep the sand colic at bay.
Generally speaking, a little dirt-eating is nothing to worry about. As always, pay attention to your horse’s behavior. If something doesn’t seem right, don’t hesitate to call a professional.