Horses are highly intelligent animals, and as such, when confined too long begin to get a bit stir-crazy. A common habit horses develop to ease their boredom and frustration is chewing on their wood stalls or other wood in their enclosures.
Not only does this damage the wood, but it can also create problems for the horse if it digests too many splinters. Enough wood chips in your horse's gut and you could be facing a nasty case of colic.
There are some medical issues, such as vitamin deficiency, that may compel a horse to chew on wood. But most of the time a horse that is chewing on wood is a bored horse.
Why Do Horses Chew Wood?
There are a few different reasons why horses chew wood. It's worth noting that wood chewing is not found in wild horses, so this is behavior that can be untrained (although it may be more difficult in some cases than others).
Horses kept in stalls, small paddocks, secluded from other horses, or fed largely concentrates without enough fodder to keep them chewing over a long time may become bored and chew fences for something to do.
Occasionally, vitamin deficiencies may cause a horse to have pica—a taste for eating strange foodstuffs in an effort to alleviate the deficiency. This is not as common but may indicate a serious underlying problem.
Some horses may have learned to gnaw wood from stable or pasture mates. Like mischievous kids, they try what the other kids are trying, even if they would never have thought of it on their own—and the habit sticks. This is a bit of a trickier situation when it comes time to train the horse out of the wood-chewing behavior, because you may need to involve more than one horse in your efforts.
Horses that crib or windsuck can be hard on wood (and other surfaces) too. However, this isn't truly wood chewing, and the solutions aren't quite as easy.
Cribbing, formally referred to as aerophagia, is an obsessive-compulsive disorder (again, found only in domesticated horses), where the horse sinks its teeth into an upright object like a fence post, then pulls against the object while inhaling and arching its neck. It's not really chewing on the wood since the horse doesn't break off or swallow any pieces, but more like nibbling at the surface.
This is a more difficult habit to get a horse to fully quit since it's usually learned behavior passed down from mothers to foals. One remedy is fitting the horse with a cribbing strap, which makes it uncomfortable for it to arch its neck.
How to Stop Wood Chewing
Once you've visited the veterinarian and ruled out any medical issues, you can take steps to address the behavior that's causing your horse to chew wood.
One old-time remedy to prevent horses from chewing wood was to feed them bone-meal. Although it was a guess, they were fed bone-meal because it was believed the horses were lacking calcium. Now there's no reason to guess if your horse is missing out on an important mineral or vitamin.
If you suspect your horse is missing something in its diet, have your veterinarian draw a blood sample and find out exactly what nutrients your horse may not be getting. This way, you can supplement with the exact vitamin or mineral in the correct amounts.
Keep Horses Outdoors
Horses that are kept indoors are more likely to develop habits to try to alleviate their boredom and frustration. Outdoors, some horses may get bored because there may be little to do once their hay is eaten up. Horses in the wild spend the majority of their time grazing.
Allowing horses to live as naturally with other horses as possible, outdoors with plenty of grass or hay to nibble on can prevent wood chewing.
There are times when outdoor turnout isn't possible, such as when a horse has an injury requiring stall rest; if there isn't space or resources for all day turn-out; or conditions such as icy pastures make it dangerous for horses to be out.
Some horses will become obese or even develop health problems if left with food all day and simply can't be left unsupervised, lest they eat non-stop. In these cases, you may have to take measures to make the wood unpalatable to the horse.
Treat Wood Surfaces
The first things many people try and the least expensive solutions are sprays, pastes or washes that have a bitter taste painted onto the wood surfaces. The downside of these is that they get washed off in the rain, and some horses don't seem to notice the taste.
Metal caps can be nailed over fence rails and posts and protection can be wrapped around trees. Plastic mesh can be used as well. A string of electric fencing along the top rail of a fence will usually keep determined chewers back and little pens can be set up around trees to prevent horses from getting near enough to chew.
Socialize Your Horse
Along with more outdoor activity, socializing your horse with other horses may help alleviate some of its boredom. Take care not to pair up two horses who both chew on wood, and watch that the wood chewer doesn't end up being a bad influence on its stablemate.
You also may want to provide your horse a toy to chew on instead of wood surfaces, but be careful to choose one that isn't in danger of being swallowed.
Check Your Horse's Diet
Wood chewing is a fairly easy problem to solve and finding the right solution can save you money, as well as ensure your horse's good health.