Is your horse eating your barn, your stalls, your fences, and your trees? This behavior not only causes costly damage to your property, but can also create health issues for your horse.
Wood chewing: More than a maintenance nuisance
Wood is not a natural component of a horse's diet. Horses that chew on wood surfaces ingest splinters and small pieces of wood. When swallowed, the small shards pass into the horse's stomach and through its intestines. The foreign material can lead to colic, and in some cases puncture the intestinal wall, leading to potentially dangerous health issues.
Splinters can also become lodged in between a horse's teeth or in its gums. Like a popcorn hull wedged in a person's teeth, it can lead to irritation and infection.
Wood chewing also damages a horse's teeth and oral structures. Throughout a horse's lifetime, its teeth wear naturally from eating roughage and processed feeds. Chewing wood excessively wears the incisor teeth, lessening the horse's ability to properly chew and digest food. Poor tooth surface impacts the horse's capability to maintain a proper weight. When left unattended, this can ultimately shorten the horse's life span.
What wood chewing is not
To understand why a horse chews wood, it is first important to understand the difference between cribbing, wood sucking, and wood chewing.
Cribbing, by definition, is when the horse grabs a solid surface (stall wall, barn wall, fence, etc) with its teeth, arches its neck, and sucks in air. Horses that crib are not as destructive to stables, but they will leave a groove in the surface they grab hold of before sucking air into their windpipe. Considered a stable vice, and thought to originate from boredom, cribbing can also indicate the horse is suffering from stomach ulcers or lead to colic.
Wind sucking is a closely related behavior that allows a horse to suck air into its windpipe without clamping onto a hard surface. Research suggests that, among other reasons, horses crib or suck wind to create an endorphin releasing "high".
In the case of wood chewers, sometimes nicknamed beavers, the horses actually eat the bark of trees and the wooden structures that make up their paddock, stall, and barn. The result is frustrating and the maintenance is costly.
Why do horses chew wood?
Wood chewing is commonly linked to three major factors:
- Boredom or frustration
- Nutritional deficiencies
Horses are grazing animals and their systems function best when feeding follows a natural pattern. Prior to domestication, horses spent a large portion of their day foraging for hay and legumes to graze on. Today's horses are confined to a stall or small paddock and/or eat processed feeds. The result in some instances is boredom or frustration with being forced to living an "unnatural" life.
Providing access to small amounts of hay throughout the day allows horses to satisfy their natural instinct to chew on food all day long. When long-stemmed, chewy hay or grass is not available throughout the day, horses sometimes turn to wood to meet their internal desire to chew.
Turnout, especially turnout with ample grazing, alleviates boredom. Injury and lack of land may prohibit regular turnout. When larger paddocks are not available, provide the horse time out of the stall each day and regular exercise to combat boredom and relieve pent-up frustration.
Paste and sprays are available and can be applied directly to the surfaces the horse is chewing. Some horses are not deterred by the flavor and regular rains wash the solutions off. Applying hot chili sauce to the horse's favorite chewing spots deter some horses, but it can actually encourage some horses to chew more frequently.
The smell and taste of dry Irish Spring soap rubbed onto the affected surfaces is believed to cure a wood chewing horse, as well as a foul-mouthed child who gets the bar of soap.
When sprays, pastes, and foul-tasting soap does not deter a wood chewer, wrapping trees with plastic mesh, placing metal caps atop fence posts, and stringing a line of electric fence along the area where the horse chews discourages the most devoted wood chewers.
Wood chewing can be an indication that a horse is lacking certain nutrients in its diet. If you suspect a nutritional deficiency, schedule a visit with the veterinarian. A blood test can determine which minerals the horse is lacking in its diet. Supplements can be chosen and added to daily feed rations to correct.
Based on the results of the blood work, commercial supplements may be needed to ensure the horse is receiving a balanced diet. Discuss all options with your veterinarian and ask questions about the specific mineral deficiencies; there may be less expensive, household alternatives that can be used rather than purchasing commercially manufactured products.
In some instances, wood chewers may suffer from ulcers. If the blood work is normal and the horse is provided regular turnout with lots of forage and still chews wood, ask the veterinarian to conduct a full physical. This can rule out any other medical-related issues that need to be treated.
Owning or boarding a wood chewer can be frustrating for horse owner and stable owner. Wood chewers will require extra attention, but with a bit of extra work they can be managed. If the veterinarian determines a horse is chewing wood for medical reasons, supplements or medications eliminate the behavior. On the other hand, if the behavior stems from boredom or habit, remove or cover as many of the wood surfaces as possible. When all else fails, work with a veterinarian or a trainer to determine if a grazing muzzle is an appropriate option.