Kentucky Performance Products: Wood Chewing in Horses

If you’ve ever wondered about wood chewing in horses, here’s some insight.

Photo courtesy of Kentucky Performance Products

Wood chewing can be an annoying and destructive behavior in horses.

Understanding why horses chew wood and incorporating strategic management practices into your routine can help eliminate the problem.

Researchers have documented an increased incidence of wood chewing in cold, wet weather (Jackson et al., 1994). It is thought that the drop in temperature causes horses to instinctively seek out additional fiber, which they find in the form of wooden fences, barns or trees. In their natural state, wild horses will incorporate a small amount of woody fiber into their diet in the winter months. Therefore, some wood chewing may be considered normal behavior.

According to noted equine behaviorist Dr. Katherine Houpt at Cornell University, diets lacking in long-stemmed fiber (hay or grass) results in increased wood chewing.

Her research found this to be the case when the hay or pasture was inadequate, or when significant quantities of fiber were provided in the form of pellets instead of hay.

For some horses, boredom or lack of exercise is the culprit. Lengthy stall confinement where meals are consumed quickly leads to boredom. Inclement winter weather can reduce turnout time, while short day length and bad weather often reduce riding time. For horses that would naturally spend the majority of their day walking around grazing on long-stemmed fiber, being cooped up in a stall or small lot can lead to multiple behavioral issues, including wood chewing.

While nutritional deficiencies are thought to be linked to some form of pica (the eating of unusual things), they do not seem to play a role in wood chewing. It is generally agreed upon that wood chewing is a signal that a horse is craving more roughage.

If wood chewing becomes a problem in your stable, equine behaviorists believe you can implement three management strategies to reduce the behavior.

  1. Feed increased amounts of long-stemmed hay.
  2. Provide plenty of “chewing time” by making sure the hay is consumed continuously or slowly.
  3. Encourage routine exercise to protect against boredom.

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