Why does my horse eat mud?
It may be somewhat alarming to see your horse, turned out in pristine pasture, ignoring the readily available grass and instead, tucking into a pile of dirt, or even worse, eating faecal material in their stable. There are several proposed reasons for this behaviour. In this article, we look at why they may decide to eat mud or faeces. And if there is anything we can do to prevent this.
Table of contents
Why do they do it?Mineral deficiency?BoredomLack of dietary fibreAgeWhat are the risks of pica in horses?Treatment or preventionProvide adequate forage Environmental enrichmentSupplementation
Pica is the term given to the desire to eat unusual substances with little or no nutritional value, like dirt, sand or tree bark. More specifically, coprophagia and geophagia refer to the ingestion of faeces and soil respectively. Horses are not the only species observed to eat dirt, geophagia has been observed in many others, including humans and dogs as well as ruminants; or, in fact, most animals reared outside. In humans, pica can occur in association with pregnancy and as such, females are overrepresented. No such gender bias has been observed in horses. Geophagia has been observed in both wild and domestic horses.
Why do they do it?
It has long been proven that sheep eat soil to ingest trace minerals such as copper and iron, which helps to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Some evidence suggests that this may also be the case for horses. It has been demonstrated in a study involving a small number of horses, that those who ate soil had lower serum iron and copper levels than those who did not eat soil. They also had slightly lower haemoglobin levels (although still within normal values). These horses were not clinically anaemic and further, larger studies are needed to investigate this more widely. However, interestingly, in addition to this, soil in sites preferred by geophagic horses had higher concentrations of iron and copper than sites that were not actively chosen by such horses. So there is a potential link between mineral deficiencies and geophagia.
Although it seems highly likely that horses seek out soil for its mineral content, we cannot prove definitively that horses exhibit geophagia because they are deficient in copper and iron as we could question whether or not geophagia itself renders them deficient in these minerals. Wild horses have been observed returning to established “lick sites” repeatedly. As these sites have been shown to contain higher levels of iron and copper than others in the same pasture, we can assume that they are not randomly chosen, but how horses can determine the appropriate site remains a mystery. Horses tend not to try out different sites before choosing one; so perhaps there is some olfactory mechanism at play – either smelling or tasting the soil for its mineral content? Certainly an interesting area for research.