Horses do all sorts of strange things that baffle their owners. Some behavior is normal and other behavior is downright alarming. Yet, there is usually a reason for what they do and it’s up to us to understand and help our equine friends.
One of the most worrisome things I have seen a horse do is eat dirt (geophagia). That didn’t seem quite right to me but I am not a horse so I figured it was time to ask my veterinarian. Here’s what the vet said.
Horses eat dirt to supplement their diet. Dirt is a source of minerals, beneficial microbes and fiber that aid in digestion. While it’s natural behavior, it isn’t always good. Horses that eat too much dirt can develop sand colic or other digestive problems. A well balanced diet with quality feed and mineral blocks will reduce their need to ingest dirt.
If you notice your horse feasting on dirt, it isn’t cause for immediate alarm. However, you should still figure out why so you can solve the root problem. Not sure where to start? Keep reading and I’ll share with you the most common reasons for eating dirt and what you should do to stop it.
4 most common reasons why horses eat dirt
As was spelled out by my vet, eating dirt is a natural thing horses do. But there is a caveat to that. It’s natural in the wild. Wild horses do not have nutritionally balanced grain, energy packed alfalfa or salt licks packed with the 68 essential trace minerals needed for top form. Read this quick article to learn everything you need to know about providing salt for horses (I guarantee you are’t supplying enough).
For horses living under a modern equestrian’s care, poor diets that require supplementing with dirt is a rare thing indeed. Which leaves us searching for another explanation.
Other than the need for minerals, microbes or fiber, there are more likely causes for a dirt eating habit. Four to be exact and all are quite common.
More than likely your horse is eating dirt because he’s bored. It is, by far, the most common cause of a horse’s dirt eating habit. Horses are natural grazers and fairly social animals. Without stimulation from free grazing, a horse confined to a stall or small paddock may resort to eating dirt to pass the time.
You’ll know boredom is the reason why your horse is eating dirt if he meets the following criteria.
- Your horse is stabled in a stall or paddock with limited turnout
- Eating dirt only happens in a stall
- Your horse didn’t always eat dirt and his diet has not changed
- Your horse exhibits other signs of boredom
If all of those things are true, boredom is the likely culprit. Addressing boredom should be your primary goal. Especially if you have horses that spend long periods in a stall. Dirt eating isn’t the only sign that your horse is bored. To unequivocally declare boredom is your horse’s issue, take a look at my in-depth article about horse boredom and how to solve it.
Again, a small amount of dirt eating isn’t necessarily bad or indicative of serious boredom. However, constant licking at dirty stall mats or excessive gorging on paddock dirt is cause for concern. You fix the boredom, you fix the dirt eating habit.
2. Upset stomach
Once you rule out boredom, the next most common cause for a horse to eat dirt is an upset stomach. Because soils have long been a natural source for dietary supplements, eating dirt to relieve an upset stomach is instinctually ingrained.
Native soil microbes, toxin reducing qualities and fiber go a long way towards improving a horse’s gut health. The cause of stomach upset is not always easy to determine and a horse has limited means for self treatment. Eating soil is the most basic.
Different soil components have unique traits that relieve indigestion, cramps and even reduce the effects of mild toxins. Microbes provide essential biochemistry that break down hard to digest foods. Fiber helps retain moisture and ease constipation. And clay particles help bind toxins found in some noxious weeds accidentally consumed.
If you suspect an upset stomach as the cause for your horse’s sudden geophagia, keep a close eye on him. Inspect his feed and scan your pasture for weeds that pose an obvious risk of poisoning.
Most importantly, call your veterinarian if you think your horse is suffering from stomach distress. A vet will likely have a much better cure for your horse than what dirt can offer.
3. Routine change
I’m sure you can appreciate the difficulty of dealing with a messed up routine. Imagine missing your morning coffee or suddenly having to work a double shift. It doesn’t just screw up your day, it messes up your appetite. Routine changes can have the very same effect on your horse.
Minor alterations to a horse’s routine are not the end of the world but major upsets in a routine are detrimental. Things like switching stables, new horses in the pasture and especially a dietary addition are all changes in a horse’s routine that could induce a need to eat dirt.
More than likely, it’s because of anxiety but there is also a negative feedback loop at play. Making changes with feed can cause a little anxiety, which effects appetite, which leads to a lack of nutrition, which exacerbates the anxiety and so on.
When you notice your horse slurping up too much dirt, consider if there has been any major routine adjustments. If so, try to add as much soothing normalcy back into his routine as soon as possible.
Not all causes of geophagia are within your control. The final possible cause I’ll discuss in this article is common but difficult to determine. And even tougher to rectify.
Your horse’s dirt eating tendencies may simply be attributed to nothing more than a personality quirk. Every horse has a unique personality and outwardly expressed traits that go with it. A happy horse in a field with several fellow horses, no stomach pains, no boredom, good feed and a reliable routine may be eating dirt just because he wants too.
Trust me, it’s frustrating to find no discernible reason why he’s eating dirt while wondering if you should be worried. Start by figuring out if he is eating lots of dirt or a little bit. If it isn’t a lot then you can probably chalk it up to a dirt eating disposition that is not a cause for immediate concern. Keep an eye on it though and contact a vet if it worsens.
How to stop a horse from eating dirt
Averting a horse’s compulsion to eat dirt isn’t always easy. Yet, regardless of the challenge, a solution always begins with addressing the root cause of the problem. I always start with the most common causes and lucky for you, we just went over them. So, now let’s re-examine each and see how to stop a horse from eating dirt.
- Eliminate boredom to discourage dirt eating: Since boredom is the most common cause of geophagia, eliminating boredom is essential. Be sure to provide plenty of exercise for your horse and try introducing a feed ball or bag to mimic grazing. Spend time with your horse and increase turnout as much as possible. Anything you do to reduce boredom also reduces the need to eat dirt.
- Address stomach issues as early as possible: When an upset stomach results in a horse that eats dirt, it could be a short lived issue that resolves itself. Yet, if it persists, contact your vet without delay after ruling out other common reasons for eating dirt.
- Introduce routine changes slowly: Increased anxiety can be lessened by avoiding drastic routine changes for your horse. If you plan to change feed, do it gradually by introducing it as a small portion of your horse’s current diet. If you need to move your horse to new living quarters, do your best to keep other routines as regular as possible. Most importantly, spend time with your horse if unavoidable changes occur. You are important to your horse and surely have a calming effect that will dissuade any notion of eating dirt.
- Work with your horse’s personality to curb his dirt eating disposition: As promised, personality quirks are hard to fix but you can mitigate some dirt eating tendencies by playing off those same quirks. Something as simple as a treat ball on the ground could be a bit more enticing than the soil it rolls on. Or you could try keeping your horse on fresh grass as often as possible to minimize dirt availability. Get creative and engage with your horse if eating dirt is just something he likes to do.
Watch out for digestive problems
At the end of the day, the most concerning part about a dirt eating habit is the risk of severe intestinal complications. Sand colic specifically. It goes without saying that a horse that eats dirt is bound to ingest a fair bit of sand. Small amounts are usually passed through their system but horses that eat larger amounts of dirt have an increased risk of sand colic.
Stay attentive at the first sign of a new behavior change like eating dirt. If it appears to be an insignificant amount then don’t fret too much. However, if you feel at all concerned your horse is eating too much dirt, error on the side of caution and call your vet for advice.
Now you know the common reasons why your horse might be eating dirt. Hopefully, you can quickly determine the cause and implement a solution as suggested.