Coprophagy refers to horses eating their own or other horses’ manure. Although a rather undesirable habit, it is not all that uncommon for horses, especially young horses or foals, to eat manure. In adult horses, this can sometimes be a cause for concern but is generally an easy fix.
The most common reason why a horse eats manure is primarily related to the age of the horse. If it is a foal, eating the mare’s manure is a way of building good gut bacteria when weaning and no cause for concern. An adult horse may eat dung due to a nutrient or roughage deficiency, stress or boredom, or even just curiosity.
Manure eating in foals is absolutely normal, and occasional manure eating in adult horses isn’t really a cause for misgiving if it happens infrequently. However, if coprophagy in adult horses is a frequent occurrence, this could be an indication that your horse is unhappy.
This article will take a look at what causes horses to eat poop and how to break this slightly disgusting habit.
Coprophagy and the Gut
Horses may eat manure for a variety of reasons. In foals, it is not uncommon at all. In adult horses, it is because the undigested fiber, protein, and vitamins in droppings are appealing to those that are fed a high-grain and low-forage diet.
The most common cause for coprophagy is a dietary deficiency or an imbalance in gut microorganisms. Manure contains bacteria that can help horses build up microbes in their gut, which is often true not only for foals but also for adult horses recovering from illnesses or colic.
Again, the most common instance of horses eating manure occurs in foals. Foals eat the dung of their dam, the mare, to raise the microbial population in their hindgut.
When a foal is transitioning from their mother’s milk to roughage, they will often ingest manure to help them build up good gut bacteria. They may eat the dung because they need it for gut immunocompetence as well as myelination of the nervous system.
Building gut immunocompetence helps the foals’ bodies produce a healthy immune response if and when they are exposed to harmful substances. This helps the foal produce antibodies to fight these antigens.
Myelination is incredibly vital for the foal’s nervous system as it helps the growing horse’s nerve cells to transmit information faster, which allows for more complex brain processes. This is key for the foal’s development as, at this early stage, they are still learning as they go.
It is also thought that the pheromones contained in a mare’s manure may help accelerate the foal’s growth trajectory as well as sexual maturation in addition to providing nutrients and normal bacterial flora for the gut (source).
Therefore, if you see a foal ingesting manure, especially that of its mother, it is no cause for concern and is perfectly normal.
Adult horses that eat manure may be doing it for the same reasons as the foals. If a horse is receiving a course of antibiotics, they likely have a sparse microbial population in their gastrointestinal tract.
Because antibiotics can eliminate all bacteria, both good and bad, in the gastrointestinal tract, a horse may resort to eating manure to help them replenish the good bacteria that they need for proper digestion.
Therefore, although it is generally a good practice to provide prebiotics and probiotics even for the healthy horse, it is absolutely critical to administer both when the horse is on antibiotics (source).
The Reasons Behind Coprophagy
Generally speaking, if an adult and otherwise healthy horse is eating manure, it is not a cause for concern or alarm. It could just be that your horse is trying to tell you that it needs something besides what you’re already giving him.
Horses that are fed a proper nutrient-rich diet with plenty of access to natural grazing and adequate roughage in the form of hay will be less likely to eat their own manure.
That said, a horse may also eat manure due to boredom or stress and, if that is the case, the horse is trying to tell you that it needs more turnout time, herd or paddock mates, and stimulation.
Inappropriate Feed or Malnutrition
As stated earlier, if horses receive a high-grain, low-forage diet, they may crave the undigested fiber, protein, and vitamins in dung, which can lead to manure-eating. Horses need to be fed six basic nutrients, namely, protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals, vitamins, and water.
Commercial feed will generally balance the first five, and the owner or manager of the horse should see to water. However, what is critically important is that a horse should be allowed to graze for a large portion of the day.
By nature, horses are nomadic animals who walk several miles every day, grazing along the way. In modern, stabled horses, they often don’t have enough time to graze, and this may lead to them lacking roughage or fiber in their diet, which means that they may turn to their own manure to make up for the deficiency.
A horse that is stabled for a large portion of the day will have less chew-time compared to horses that live out in a pasture. Because of their digestive system’s design, they need to be continuously eating.
Naturally, a horse will not fast for longer than three to four hours at a time and, as horse owners and caregivers, we need to understand this nature (source).
If they aren’t able to graze, they may eat their own manure to combat the lack of other foodstuffs. The best way to remedy this is by allowing stabled horses access to lengthy turnout times in a pasture and, once stabled, providing slow-feeder hay nets with plenty of roughage for them to chew on while in confinement (source).
Overfeeding Top-Quality Hay
If horses are fed top-quality hay in hay nets when stabled, but turned out to pasture or field where natural feed and grazing is few and far between, or even non-existent, they may turn to their own manure for a snack, as the undigested fiber will appear appetizing to the horse that has nothing else to eat.
Although horses should be allowed time to graze and fed quality hay when stabled, it is important to either ensure that their paddocks and fields have adequate grazing or that they are provided with slow-feeder hay nets in the pasture as well if grazing is limited.
The horse needs adequate chew-time and, if it is insufficient or they aren’t getting their fill of roughage, they may turn to coprophagy as their only solution.
Stress or Hunger
Horses, like so many other mammals, enjoy the familiarity and stability of a daily routine. If a horse doesn’t have a proper routine, the resultant stress may cause manure-eating and other unwanted behaviors or pica, which is the eating of other non-food substances.
Horses that are stabled for irregular periods or that don’t come into contact with specific humans regularly, but rather a volley of strangers or limited human contact, tend to display more stress indicators than others, and this includes coprophagy.
Horses should have a proper routine that is the same every day, and this extends to their stabled time, grooming routine, feeding routine, and turnout time.
If you don’t provide a routine for a horse, they may form bad habits to create a sort of routine for themselves. These bad habits can range from weaving to coprophagy.
On the other hand, if a horse is turned out for grazing in overstocked paddocks with too little food, it can cause hunger, and the horses will start looking at other ways to get their daily fill and adequate chew-time, which can lead to them turning to their own manure.
Ideally, a horse should be allowed to graze for a large part of the day and, when stabled, provided access to roughage or hay via a hay net.
One of the most common reasons for healthy adult horses to be eating manure is boredom.
A horse should be allowed paddock time for a large part of the day, preferably 10 to 12 hours in modern stable yards. They also need paddock mates and herd mates to thrive, as they are by nature a herd animal.
If horses aren’t exercised, and if they don’t have other horses around them to entertain and stimulate them, they may turn to bad habits to curb their stress and boredom.
A horse that is eating manure, weaving, cribbing, or wind-sucking is merely trying to tell you that they lack a fundamental aspect in their life and that they are bored (source).
Horses are by nature nomadic animals with a complex digestive tract that means they graze for a large portion of their day. If they do not have adequate access to forage, feed, and roughage, they may turn to coprophagy to curb boredom, stress, hunger, or a nutrient deficiency.
On the other hand, if the horse eating manure is still a foal, then manure-eating, especially that of its mother, is completely normal and a way for the foal to build up the beneficial gut bacteria it needs to transition from its mother’s milk to roughage.