Horses are highly intelligent animals, and as such, when confined too long may get a bit stir-crazy. A common habit that horses develop to ease their boredom and frustration is chewing on their wood stalls or other wood in their enclosures.
Not only does chewing damage the wood, but it can also create problems for the horse if it ingests 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 deficiencies, that may compel a horse to chew wood. But most of the time a horse that's chewing on wood is a bored horse.
Why Do Horses Chew Wood?
There are a few reasons why horses chew wood. It's worth noting that wood chewing isn't found among wild horses, so this is a behavior that can be untrained (although it may be more difficult in some cases than others).
Horses kept in stalls or paddocks, secluded from other horses, or fed mostly concentrates without enough fodder to keep them chewing over a long period of time may become bored and chew fences for something to do.
Occasionally, vitamin deficiencies may cause a horse to develop pica—a taste for eating nonedible substances in an effort to alleviate the deficiency. This is not as common, but pica 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. The horse isn't really chewing on the wood since it doesn't break off or swallow any pieces; it's 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 start addressing 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 they were lacking in calcium. Now there's no reason to guess whether your horse is getting all the important minerals and vitamins.
If you suspect that 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 Your Horse 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 they eat all their hay. 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 help prevent wood chewing. But 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 turnout, or conditions such as icy pastures make it dangerous for horses to be out.
Some horses become obese or even develop health problems if they're confined to the stall all day and simply can't be left unsupervised, lest they chew nonstop. In these cases, you may have to take measures to make the wood unpalatable to the horse.
Treat or Protect 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 such products is that they get washed off in the rain, and some horses don't seem to notice the taste.
You can nail metal caps over fence rails and posts, protectively wrap trees, and use plastic mesh as well. A string of electric fencing along the top rail of a fence usually keeps determined chewers back, and you can try setting up little pens around trees to prevent your horse from getting close enough to chew.
Socialize Your Horse
Along with more outdoor activity, socializing your horse with other horses may help alleviate some of its boredom. But don't pair up two horses that both chew on wood, and take care that the wood chewer doesn't end up being a bad influence on its nonchewing stablemate.
Give Your Horse a Toy
You may also want to provide your horse with a toy to play with to direct its attention away from wood surfaces, but be careful to choose one that it can't swallow.
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.