Why Is My Horse Eating Wood Shavings Used for His Bedding?

Q. I have a 15.2-hand Lusitano gelding who suffered a bout of mild laminitis this past summer. He weighed 1,200 pounds. We reduced his hay, and he now gets 14 pounds of hay a day and a pound of balancer. His morning hay is soaked overnight, and his evening hay is soaked for an hour. He has lost some weight but needs to lose more. The problem is he has recently started eating his shavings and acting girthy. What can I do to stop this?

A. Despite what many people think, managing easy keepers is no easy task. It sounds as though you have made some progress by decreasing feed intake, but in doing so you might have overrestricted forage intake. This might be why your horse is now eating his shavings. Eating shavings is not a good habit and can result in impaction colic due to the indigestibility of the wood. His digestive tract is telling him he needs to consume more forage to maintain his hindgut, and the shavings provide a readily available fiber source. Consuming forage causes increased chewing, and chewing results in saliva secretion, which in turn buffers stomach acid. In reducing time spent chewing and natural buffering of stomach acid, he might have developed gastric ulcers. I recommend consulting your veterinarian to get an accurate diagnosis.

Ideally, horses should eat at least 1.5% of their body weight per day as forage, or at a bare minimum 1%. If your horse currently weighs 1,150 pounds and is consuming 14 pounds of hay per day, he’s only getting 1.2% of his body weight. Another factor is that his forage is soaked. While soaking for 30-60 minutes has little impact on the relative dry matter portion of hay, longer soaking periods can negatively impact the amount of organic matter in the hay. Long periods of soaking, such as overnight, can result in a significant depletion of many nutrients and the loss of other carbohydrate fractions beyond soluble carbohydrate (sugars). This can have a similar impact as feeding less hay, so you might have to feed more hay. Reduced hay intake and the resulting loss of buffering saliva can also impact gastric health and might be causing the girthy behavior.

You could try the following:

  • Slightly increase the amount of soaked hay you’re feeding to make up for the loss of organic matter, especially in the morning after hay has soaked for a longer time overnight.
  • Feed all hay in a small-holed haynet to increase chew time. Netting the hay when dry and then soaking it make the hay far easier to handle than soaking loose unnetted hay.
  • Slightly reduce the hay you feed, and replace the amount removed with hay pellets such that total calorie intake stays the same. Then feed the pellets using an automatic feeder. You can program automatic feeders to turn on and feed a small amount of hay pellets at a time. This creates an almost grazing system, resulting in chewing and saliva production over a greater period, including the middle of the night.

Also make sure your horse is consuming adequate protein. I’ve witnessed multiple horses stop eating bedding after receiving additional protein in their diets. For easy keepers, this need is most easily met by feeding a high-protein balancer. Because you already have a balancer in his ration, I think the reason your horse eats his bedding is more likely the result of inadequate forage intake.

Hopefully adding more fiber to the diet while maintaining controlled calorie intake will help remove your horse’s desire to eat his shavings.