Why do horses dig field holes and eat mud?

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    Q: For the past two years, at around this time of year, my horse has dug field holes and eaten mud. Could a deficiency have developed into a habit? The other horses are now copying. I plan to test the soil.

    SW, Wiltshire

    Your problem sounds multi-factorial, but soil analysis is a good start. Independent agricultural companies with soil analysis laboratories can test and report on nutrient status, usually for less than £50. Contact environmental consultancy ADAS for advice.

    Independent equine nutritionist Christine Smy says the horse may be digging where a salt block was previously placed.

    “The salt could have leeched into the soil and a horse with a salt requirement may dig there,” she said. “Alternatively, the horse may have pulled up desirable grasses and eaten part of the root. The digging may become habitual and, with an inadequate supply of hay or grass in the field, boredom may contribute.

    “In addition to hay, you could place mineral blocks and see if they’re used.”

    Due to sand colic risk, the horse should be discouraged from eating soil.

    “Try filling and reseeding the digging area, or correctly fit a grazing muzzle for a few hours a day until the grass is abundant,” Christine added.

    According to Emma Kurrels, founder of community website Voices for Horses and manager of Lluest Horse and Pony Trust, even if your horse was seeking nutrients, it can take a while for habitual digging behaviour to diminish.

    “Location may be relevant — for example, frustrated behaviour at the gate could be caused by boredom, hunger, incompatible companions, etc. If there is a time-related pattern, check the horse’s routine,” she advises.

    Does it cause stress?

    “Horses do not ‘copy’ behaviour. If other horses do the same thing, they have either the same problem — eg nutritional deficiency — or, if your horse is anxious or stressed, they can pick this up.”

    This is an extract from Ask H&H, first published in the current issue of Horse & Hound (27 January, 2011)

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