Many pet horses and ponies are obese. Even Secretariat, the legendary 1973 American Triple Crown winner, was considered overweight most of his life – even when he was racing as a two-year-old. Secretariat died prematurely from laminitis, which may have been exaggerated by the extra 600 pounds he was packing. Horses and ponies are resourceful snackers when placed on a diet. They may eat their stall bedding when on a diet.
A 2011 study from the University of Liverpool School of Veterinary Medicine and Waltham UK confirmed that horses and ponies on diets will eat their stall bedding in between meals. The horses were stabled all day except for their pasture turnout times, when they wore muzzles to prevent grazing. All 12 of the horses in the study were placed on wood shavings, once thought to be unpalatable to horses but not this dieting dozen. They ate their bedding.
Using Rubber Mats
The study suggested that horses and ponies on a diet should be bedded not on straw or wood products but rubber stall mats. These mats are solid rubber or are a lighter rubber grid for dirt flooring. Stall mats have been around for decades and often form a buffer in between hard flooring (such as concrete) and the horse’s hooves. Solid rubber mats can weigh nearly 100 pounds depending on how large of a stall they need to cover.
It is important that the mats fit the entire stall floor and not just part of the floor, even if the horse cannot stick a hoof or a muzzle in the space between the mat and the wall. This little space is just large enough for dirt, bacteria, old food and moldy bedding to accumulate. This may grow bacteria that can be dangerous for your horse to be exposed to.
These are like an anti-feedbag. They cover the horse’s mouth and nostrils. Because they cover the nostrils, the muzzles have small openings on them so the horse can breathe. Muzzles do not completely keep a horse from eating his bedding, but it cuts down the amount he can munch.
Understanding Your Horse: How to Overcome Behaviour Problems (David & Charles; 2001) explains that a horse with a muzzle on may pile up all of her bedding and then stick her head right in the pile. This trick helps food fall in through the muzzle openings to the horse’s mouth. These horses may need plain stall mats without any additional bedding on top.
No More Boredom
Check your horse’s routine. How many times is he bored? Eating the bedding can be a way to get rid of his boredom. Horses generally like to supervise any action going on at a barn or stable. Viewing the world through the open upper half of a stall door or a window gives the horse something to do.
Even if your horse is turned out in a pasture every day, he may not be getting enough exercise to burn the calories he consumes. Your horse may also benefit from a pasture or stall toy such as balls made for horses to help alleviate boredom and burn some calories. Talk to your vet about appropriate exercises and toys for your particular horse or pony. Always consult your veterinarian before making choices concerning your equine’s health and well-being.
The Illustrated Guide to Holistic Care for Horses: An Owner’s Manual. Denise Bean-Raymond. Quarry Books; 2009.
The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World’s Greatest Racehorse. Lawrence Scanlon. Macmillan; 2008.
“Demystifying Mats and Maintenance.” David Preston. The Horse. September, 2011.