Why Do Horses Chew Wood?

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Why do horses chew wood?  That is a good question.  Do they chew wood or is that just an old folk tale?  

In this article, you will find if that question is fact or myth.

Do Horses Chew Wood?

Yes, they do and there are many different reasons why.  When they chew on wood it can create problems for the horse and the wood they are damaging.  With wild horses, chewing on wood is not usually seen.  It is also known as stall chewing.

Why They Do It?

Although there may be a medical reason like a vitamin deficiency that would cause a horse to chew on wood, the main reason is that they are bored.  A horse chewing on wood could be the result of keeping a horse in an unnatural environment.

  • Boredom—if a horse is kept in a paddock or stalls, or away from other horses, it can become boring.  Boredom can also happen if they are fed mostly concentrates without enough fodder to keep them chewing for a period of time.
  • Nutritional deficiencies—occasionally, a horse may have a vitamin deficiency that will cause them to develop pica, which is the taste for non-edible things so they can alleviate that deficiency.  Although this is not common, it could indicate a serious underlying hormonal or nutrient problem.  They may also not have enough fiber in their diet.
  • Habit—yes, it can be just a habit.  The horse may have learned to gnaw wood from their pasture or stablemates.  They may not have thought of it on their own but when they see another horse doing it, they decide to try it.
  • Cribbing—this is also referred to as aerophagia, which is an obsessive-compulsive disorder where the horse will sink its incisors into an upright object, such as a fence post.  While inhaling and arching their necks, they pull against the object.  This is generally found only in domesticated horses.  With this, the horse does not chew on the wood but is more like leaning on the wood to forcibly gulp air.
  • Some may do it to release nervous energy
  • Inadequate feed
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bitten wood

Symptoms of Chewing Wood

  • They use their teeth to break pieces of wood off stalls, fences, etc.
  • A horse may swallow the wood or drop the wood on the ground
  • Heads towards the woods on the property

Problems Chewing on Wood Can Cause

  • It can cause undue wear on their incisors
  • They can have a chance of swallowing splinters or getting them lodged in the mouth and stomach.
  • Infections
  • If the wood has been treated, the carcinogens and chemicals can cause harm to the horse.
  • They could also ingest nails, staples, or other harmful items that you might find in the wood.
  • If they chew on a poisonous tree, a horse could become very sick.  Some poisonous trees include peach, black locust, black walnut, and pine.

How to Stop a Horse from Chewing on Wood

If you notice your horse chewing on wood, the first thing that you need to do is have them checked out by a veterinarian to rule out any nutritional or medical issues.  Once these are ruled out, you can start to address their behavior.

Some of the ways you can do this include: 

  • Keep your horse outdoors because if they are kept indoors, they are more likely to develop habits to alleviate their frustration and boredom.  Even when they are outdoors, they can become bored because there is little to do once they eat all their hay so they may find wood to chew on.  Allow your horse to live as naturally as possible outdoors with other horses.  Make sure that they have plenty of hay or grass to nibble on like horses in the wild do.  
  • Make sure that you protect or treat all wood surfaces.  If you apply pastes, washes, or sprays that have a bitter taste on all the wood surfaces, it may deter them from chewing on the wood.  You need to make sure that it will not wash off in the rain and that it is non-toxic.  Sometimes this does not work as a horse does not seem to notice the taste.
  • You can protectively wrap trees, nail metal caps over fence rails or use plastic mesh.  Some will put a string of electric fencing along the top rails of a fence.  You can put little pens around the trees to prevent the horse from getting close enough for them to chew on
  • Socialize your horse with other horses could help to alleviate their boredom.  Just make sure that you do not pair two horses that chew on wood.  You also need to make sure that the one that chews on wood does not influence the other horse to also become a wood chewer.
  • Give the horse a toy to play with like a big rubber ball.
  • Check their diet and talk to your veterinarian about reducing the amount of grain in their diet.  Sometimes when the grain is reduced, they are not as likely to engage in cribbing or chewing in wood.  Make sure that your horse has enough roughage to satiate their natural grazing instinct.
  • To help eliminate boredom if they have to stay in a stall for a medical reason, refit the stalls with grills or windows so they see other horses.
  • You can try to switch the horse from pelleted feed to hay.
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  • Make sure that your horse is getting enough exercise every day.
  • If you notice your horse chewing on wood, the first thing you need to do is have them checked out by a veterinarian to rule out any health issue.
  • If a horse chewing on wood is an established habit, it can be difficult to stop.
  • If you have an overweight horse and have implemented a weight loss program, they may start to chew on wood because they are undergoing an appetite readjustment.
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