It’s cause for concern when a horse suddenly develops a taste for soil. Licking, lipping or otherwise ingesting dirt on purpose increases a horse’s risk of sand colic. If you notice this behavior in your horse, figure out what’s motivating it and how you can stop it.
The idea that horses eat dirt because they lack a particular nutrient is a myth, probably held over from days when equine diets weren’t so carefully crafted. These days, any horse fed a commercial feed formulated for his stage of life is almost certainly well nourished (although it’s always a good idea to double-check the suitability of his ration). What’s more, if a horse were so deficient in any nutrient that he was compelled to eat dirt to find it, he’d likely be showing other signs of trouble, like weight loss or a dull coat.
Horses who ingest dirt usually do so out of boredom. In a natural setting, horses fill their hours grazing, and that “chew time” is important to their mental health. Try offering your horse extra hay, perhaps in a slow feeder, to keep him occupied without increasing his weight or stressing him metabolically. If extra hay doesn’t deter your dirt-eater, try increasing his exercise sessions or matching him up with an active, friendly pasturemate who will provide more stimulating company.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #445, October 2014.