When you see your horse with his mouth full of soil, rocks and other extraneous materials found on the ground, it’s understandable you might be concerned, and want to know why. Actually, horses engage in this perfectly natural activity for several reasons.
Dirt contains minerals in bio-available form that horses need for various metabolic functions. Some minerals (iron, for example) are more utilizable from the soil than when added to feeds or stored in forages. Horses who are constantly stabled and deprived of the minerals naturally found in dirt may develop deficiencies even when supplied with those minerals in processed feeds.
Dirt contains microbes that can benefit the horse’s digestive system. Some microbes are located in plant roots so your horse may dig through the dirt to get at the roots of these plants.
Dirt contains water and salt which can both help a thirsty horse stay hydrated. However, it is always better to make sure horses are supplied with fresh drinking water and salt at all times.
Dirt has course particles that will help naturally grind down your horse’s teeth. Horses kept in stalls do not get this added benefit of eating dirt and must have their teeth floated more often than those out on pasture.
DON’T DENY THE DIRT!
Horses are supposed to eat a certain amount of dirt on a daily basis. Dirt is a natural part of the equine diet.
A horse who does not have access to dirt on a daily basis may gorge on it when it is suddenly available.
A horse who is deficient in fiber will eat sawdust, shavings, straw, fences, stall planks, trees – just about anything he can find – to try to satisfy this requirement. Soil contains fiber from leaves, bark and stems. Horses who are stabled or paddocked must be given free access to forage to adequately supply the hindgut with enough fiber.
A horse with nothing to eat will eat dirt due to hunger and boredom. Again, it is imperative that horses be given, or have access to, forage on a continuous basis to avoid overconsumption of dirt due to hunger or boredom. Such a situation is dangerous as it can set up the digestive tract for impaction colic very quickly.
A horse with an upset stomach may seek out and eat dirt or clay. According to Dr. Christine King, “Clays in particular contain very absorbent particles which can bind up bacterial toxins, organic acids such as those produced by sugar fermentation, certain viruses, and other potentially harmful substances in the gut. The bound toxins are then harmlessly removed from the body in the manure.”
For the health of your horse, please allow some daily access to dirt. It’s healthy, nutritious and natural!
Dr. Amy M. Gill is a consultant who specializes in growth, metabolic and exercise related disorders. She is available for consultation, seminars, clinics and technical writing services. e-mail Dr. Gill at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.equiforce.com , www.amymgillphd.com