If your horse is chewing wood fence rails, barn doors, tree limbs and so on, you may not realize that this is not normal. Wood isn’t a natural food for horses, and wood chewing can cause complications in both barn maintenance and horse health.
In this article, we describe wood chewing and share valuable information to help you understand possible reasons for this behavior and how to stop a horse from chewing wood. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 What Is Wood Chewing?
- 2 How Does Wood Chewing Hurt Horses?
- 3 The 3 Main Reasons Horses Chew On Wood
- 4 Good Maintenance Discourages Chewing
- 5 Be Consistent, Patient & Thorough
- 6 Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Wood Chewing?
Many people are confused by the terms cribbing, wood sucking, and wood chewing. All of these behaviors can involve an equine oral fixation with wood, but the symptoms and results of these three behaviors are quite different.
A horse bites down on a solid surface, arches his neck and sucks air. This doesn’t cause a lot of damage to the surface, but it does cause health problems for the horse. Chronic cribbing can cause stomach ulcers and colic.
This behavior is usually seen in bored horses, but it is an addictive behavior and can continue even when the horse’s boredom is alleviated.
2. Wind Sucking
This behavior is similar to cribbing in that the horse becomes addicted to sucking air. The difference is that the horse does this without biting down on a hard surface.
Some equine behaviorists speculate that this behavior is addictive because it releases endorphins causing a “rush” or “high”.
Horses who chew wood are actually eating it. They may chew on trees, fence posts and planks, barn doors and other wooden structures. This causes costly damage and expensive health complications.
Horses may engage in this behavior because they are bored, lacking some element in nutrition or literally starving.
What A Horse’s Wood Chewing Does!
How Does Wood Chewing Hurt Horses?
When horses chew wood, they swallow little bits of wood and sharp splinters. This debris can cause a great deal of trouble in a horse’s innards. Not only can it cause colic, a big sharp splinter can puncture an intestine. This can lead to costly surgery or death.
Wood chewing is also bad for your horse’s teeth and mouth. Chewing on wood wears teeth down, and splinters can scratch or puncture your horse’s tongue or the insides of his mouth. Splinters can also get stuck between your horse’s teeth, and this can cause damage, decay and infection.
When your horse’s teeth become badly worn down by wood chewing, it interferes with his ability to chew his food correctly. This can cause an inability to swallow and digest food, and the result may be nutritional deficiencies and weight loss.
The 3 Main Reasons Horses Chew On Wood
1. Frustration or boredom
Horses are social animals, and their systems are designed to nibble constantly. In the wild, horses travel about during the day socializing with other horses and seeking out grass, leaves and other vegetation to nibble. Their diet is made up entirely of fresh, green roughage, and that is the ideal diet for most horses.
Horses who live in a controlled environment, don’t have much opportunity to move around, graze and socialize with others are prone to developing bad habits such as cribbing, wind sucking and wood chewing out of sheer boredom and frustration.
Being fed a diet of processed grain (pelleted feeds) can also contribute to this problem as these types of feeds don’t provide enough roughage or enough “mouth feel” to satisfy a horse’s needs. Free access to fresh, long stem hay can help. Be sure to use a hay net to keep the hay clean, slow the horse down and provide more challenge.
Never keep a horse in a stall for an extended period of time. Free time spent in a pasture with other horses is very important in keeping a horse happy, healthy and satisfied. Be sure to give your horse ample time roam, graze, socialize and move around freely.
If you don’t have a big, open space where your horse can move about freely and socialize, you must commit to taking him out, hand walking, lunging and/or riding enough to provide good exercise and socialization (even if it’s just with you).
Horse toys can help keep horses occupied and alleviate some boredom, but free time with plenty of room to play and socialize with other horses is the best remedy for boredom.
2. Nutritional deficits or starvation
A horse who is starving will naturally chew wood and anything else it can get hold of to try to alleviate hunger. It’s not uncommon for rescue horses to have the bad habit of chewing for very understandable reasons.
On the other hand, a well-fed horse may also turn to wood chewing if certain elements are lacking in the diet. If your horse is not bored, is eating well, has no history of wood chewing and has suddenly started this habit, consult your vet and request a complete exam including blood work and a check for ulcers.
It’s possible that your horse needs vitamin and/or mineral supplements or feed for weight gain. It’s also possible he needs his teeth floated because they have become overgrown and uneven. When this is the case, your horse will not be able to chew his food correctly. This can interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption.
Before you try any remedy, have your vet pinpoint the cause of the problem. This will save you money in the long run.
3. Habit or addiction
Even if your horse is currently well-fed and amply engaged in interesting activities, he may still chew wood if he developed the habit earlier in life, or he may have learned it from another horse. In either case, you may need to take steps to make wood repellent to him.
- There are commercially prepared sprays and pastes that you can apply to wooden surfaces to repel your horse. This works for some horses but may actually encourage others to chew more.
- Some people have had good luck spraying a homemade hot pepper spray on wooden surfaces, but as with commercially prepared repellents, this repels some horses and attracts others.
- Rubbing a dry bar of Irish Spring soap on wooden surfaces is also said to repel horses.
The problem with all of these topical applications is that their success is hit-or-miss; they must be reapplied often, and when it rains they wash off.
Furthermore, if you apply capsaicin (hot pepper) spray to wood surfaces, you run the risk of irritating your own skin or eyes when you come in contact with it.
Good Maintenance Discourages Chewing
Instead of incurring an ongoing expense with short-term topical preparations, you are probably better off with more permanent fixes. Consider these solutions:
- Replace chewed wooden gates and stall doors with metal ones.
- Replace chewed wooden fence rails with metal or resin rails.
- Install electric fence over popular chewing areas.
- Put metal caps on fence posts.
- Wrap trees with plastic mesh.
Some people use a grazing muzzle to control wood chewing, but this should be a last resort. If your horse is chewing because he is bored or frustrated, being muzzled will only make this problem worse and could lead to anxiety related ulcers and behavioral problems.
Be Consistent, Patient & Thorough
If your horse is a chewer, be sure to cover all the bases and address every possible cause. Most of the things you would do to stop this problem are simply good horse stewardship.
- Keep your facilities in good repair using materials that can’t be chewed.
- Feed a natural diet with ample roughage.
- Keep your horse engaged and active.
- Make sure your horse is healthy.
Follow the guidelines presented here in a consistent manner, and you should begin to see some improvement in your horse’s chewing habits with the passage of time. As with any goal you set for yourself and your horse, remember to be consistent, patient and thorough. Diligence will eventually pay off.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you see your horse licking a wood surface, it can mean he’s about to start cribbing. Wood chewing without cribbing is also a precursor. Redirection to another activity and/or another setting can be helpful.
Approximately 5% of horses have trouble with this bad habit.
No, horses left to their own devices in a setting where they are free to roam and socialize, eat plenty of roughage and don’t have the visual example of cribbing to follow do not ever engage in this activity.
It can be. If you have a horse who has developed the habit, he will carry it into any environment. Even if your horses are well fed, get plenty of roughage have plenty of stimulation and socialization, the one with the bad habit will introduce it. Others may pick it up.
Yes! Once a horse starts cribbing, he is very likely to continue and increase the behavior until it is taking up as much as 65% of his time.
Low roughage diets tend to encourage cribbing. A horse who is underfed or is fed mostly grain with little roughage is likely to take up cribbing. This is especially true of horses who are fed a lot of sweet feed.
Yes, if cribbing is going to start, it typically does so in foals at about five months of age. Foals whose mothers crib are likely to learn the behavior. Foals who are transitioned rapidly from mother’s milk to a grain diet are likely to take up cribbing. This is why a gradual transition that includes plenty of fresh grass and hay is essential to successful weaning. Foals who are raised outdoors and have ample opportunity for socialization and grazing are far less likely to develop the bad habit of cribbing.
High strung horses, such as Thoroughbreds, are more likely to crib than more settled breeds. Interestingly, it seems that cribbing (perhaps like smoking in humans) seems to have a calming effect on the horses who engage in it. Studies have shown that horses who crib have different distributions of dopamine receptors in the brain than non-cribbers. This seems to have the effect of making it a bit easier to teach them new skills and harder to retrain them on skills they have already established.
As with any addiction, cribbing takes up the time that the addicted horse could be spending on self care (i.e. eating). Additionally, cribbing is very hard on a horse’s teeth. While the horse may be able to eat effectively during its younger years, when it grows older and starts losing teeth, its remaining damaged teeth will not process feed and hay effectively.
Horses who crib are known to be at greater risk for a number of dangerous conditions, such as colic, temporohyoid osteoarthropathy and equine motor neuron disease.
Yes, it is, and it has the effect of causing cribbers to turn to other oral comforts, such as sweetened licks, when they are stressed. As a fixation/addiction, it also seems to have the effect of increasing other compulsive behaviors, such as weaving.
Yes, again like smoking, cribbing seems to make it possible for a horse to calm down. Horses who crib have been found to have a lowered heart rate while engaging in the compulsion; however, overall they have higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) than non-cribbers. This means that they may find it more necessary to self-soothe than non-addicted horses.