Why Do Horses Eat Tree Bark

In the world of equine nutrition and behavior, the topic of horses eating tree bark is both intriguing and concerning to horse owners and enthusiasts. This article aims to explore the reasons behind this behavior, the signs that indicate a horse is consuming tree bark, the potential causes driving horses to engage in this activity, the associated risks, and most importantly, how to prevent it. By delving into the nutritional, behavioral, and environmental factors that may lead a horse to eat tree bark, we can better understand the implications and take proactive measures to safeguard the well-being of our equine companions.

From identifying physical and behavioral signs to learning about the potential risks and preventive strategies, this comprehensive guide will equip readers with valuable insights that can help ensure the health and welfare of their horses.

Key Takeaways:

  • Horses may eat tree bark due to nutritional deficiencies, boredom, pica, or coprophagia.
  • Signs of a horse eating tree bark include physical signs like teeth wear and behavioral signs like excessive chewing or cribbing.
  • Risks of horses eating tree bark include choking, intestinal blockage, and potential toxicity. Prevention methods include providing adequate forage, using bitter-tasting sprays, and consulting a veterinarian.
  • Why Do Horses Eat Tree Bark?

    Horses may eat tree bark due to various reasons, including nutritional deficiencies, behavioral patterns, and environmental factors.

    Nutritional deficiencies can prompt horses to consume tree bark in search of missing nutrients. Inadequate grazing or feeding practices may lead to deficiencies in minerals such as calcium and phosphorus, compelling horses to seek alternative sources of these essential nutrients. Behavioral patterns, such as compulsive chewing or pica, could drive horses to chew on tree bark, regardless of their nutritional needs.

    Environmental factors, such as limited access to pastures or poor quality forage, may also contribute to the consumption of tree bark by horses. Additionally, equine oak toxicosis can result from horses ingesting oak bark, leading to various health issues, including damage to the gastrointestinal tract and kidney failure.

    What Are the Signs That a Horse is Eating Tree Bark?

    What Are the Signs That a Horse is Eating Tree Bark? - Why Do Horses Eat Tree Bark

    Credits: Horselife.Org – Robert Baker

    Recognizing the signs of a horse eating tree bark is crucial for identifying potential health and behavioral issues in equines.

    When a horse begins to consume tree bark, there are several physical and behavioral signs to watch for. Physical signs may include wood particles in the horse’s manure, dental issues, and weight loss. Behavioral changes such as increased aggression, irritability, or restlessness can also be indicative of this unusual behavior.

    Early detection is essential as the ingestion of tree bark can lead to nutritional imbalances, digestive problems, and potential toxicity. Ensuring that the horse has access to a well-balanced diet with adequate forage, such as red clover, and monitoring their grazing behavior can help prevent this undesirable activity.

    In places like Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, where horses are commonly kept on grazing lands with access to trees, it becomes even more important to be vigilant about the horse’s behavior to prevent them from developing a preference for consuming tree bark.

    What Are the Physical Signs?

    Physical signs of a horse consuming tree bark can include dental abnormalities, gastrointestinal distress, and changes in manure consistency.

    When a horse eats tree bark, it can lead to abrasions and fractures in their teeth due to the hardness of the bark, causing discomfort during eating and potential weight loss. In addition, ingesting tree bark can also result in gastrointestinal upset, indicated by colic symptoms such as restlessness, pawing, and rolling. Changes in manure consistency, such as diarrhea or constipation, may be observed due to the tannins present in the bark affecting the horse’s digestive system.

    What Are the Behavioral Signs?

    Behavioral signs of tree bark consumption in horses may manifest as increased wood-chewing, agitated behavior, and reduced appetite for traditional forage.

    Wood-chewing habits in horses are often indicative of physical discomfort or dietary deficiencies. When a horse displays a sudden onset of wood-chewing, it signals potential issues that warrant attention. The behavior can also be triggered by psychological stress, such as boredom or confinement. Dr. Aida López-Sánchez, PhD., notes that altered forage preferences can be a significant indicator of a horse’s digestive discomfort, potentially leading to nutritional imbalances. Horses may exhibit changes in grazing behavior and show a preference for alternative sources of fiber when experiencing these issues.

    What Causes Horses to Eat Tree Bark?

    Various factors can lead horses to eat tree bark, including nutritional deficiencies, coprophagia, boredom, and pica-related behaviors.

    Nutritional deficiencies, such as insufficient beet pulp or minerals, can lead horses to seek alternative sources of nutrition. For instance, gallotannins found in some tree bark can provide a bitter taste that may attract horses exhibiting coprophagia tendencies. Boredom and pica-related behaviors, often observed in stalled horses, can drive them to chew on tree bark due to a lack of mental stimulation or the desire to consume non-nutritive items.

    Nutritional Deficiencies

    Nutritional deficiencies, such as inadequate fiber or mineral imbalances, may drive horses to seek alternative sources, leading to tree bark consumption as a compensatory behavior.

    When horses lack sufficient fiber in their diet, they may resort to consuming tree bark to fulfill their need for roughage. Additionally, mineral imbalances, including deficiencies or excesses of certain minerals, can prompt horses to engage in abnormal eating behaviors. For instance, horses grazing in pastures with an overabundance of red clover, which contains high levels of tannins, may exhibit tree bark consumption as an attempt to offset the adverse effects of excessive tannin intake.


    In some instances, coprophagia, or the consumption of feces, may drive horses to explore non-traditional food sources, including tree bark.

    As herbivores, horses naturally graze on grass and consume hay, but coprophagia may indicate a behavioral shift. This behavior might be linked to a deficiency in their diet, prompting them to seek out alternative sources of essential nutrients found in black walnut bark or other tree barks. The presence of slaframine in the consumed feces can lead horses to seek out tree bark due to its potential to counteract the toxic effects of this mycotoxin.

    Boredom or Lack of Forage

    Boredom or inadequate access to forage can prompt horses to exhibit exploratory behavior, including the consumption of tree bark as a form of environmental enrichment.

    When horses experience boredom or lack of stimulation due to insufficient forage availability, they may resort to consuming tree bark as a way to alleviate their boredom and satisfy their natural urge for foraging. In regions such as New South Wales, Australia, where environmental conditions may limit access to diverse forage, this behavior is particularly observed. According to equine behavior expert Mariette van den Berg, environmental enrichment plays a crucial role in preventing this behavior. Therefore, ensuring ample forage provision and implementing enriching activities are essential to discourage horses from consuming tree bark as a compensatory behavior.


    Pica, a condition characterized by the consumption of non-nutritive substances, can contribute to horses seeking out and consuming tree bark as an abnormal behavior pattern.

    This behavior can be particularly evident in cases of equine oak toxicosis, where horses may exhibit abnormal eating patterns due to the toxic substances present in oak trees.

    A combination of factors such as nutritional deficiencies, stress, or environmental changes can trigger pica-related behaviors in horses, leading them to engage in the consumption of tree bark, despite it being non-nutritive.

    It’s important for horse owners to monitor their animals closely for any signs of pica and provide appropriate veterinary care to address underlying causes.

    What Are the Risks of Horses Eating Tree Bark?

    What Are the Risks of Horses Eating Tree Bark? - Why Do Horses Eat Tree Bark

    Credits: Horselife.Org – Kenneth Nguyen

    The consumption of tree bark by horses poses potential risks, including choking, intestinal blockage, and exposure to toxic substances present in certain tree species.

    When horses consume tree bark, there is a risk that the fibrous texture of the bark can cause an obstruction in their digestive system. Red maple bark, for instance, contains a toxic substance called juglone hydrojuglone, which can be harmful to horses if ingested. The act of nibbling on bark can result in choking, especially if the pieces are large or coarse. It is essential for horse owners to be vigilant and prevent horses from accessing certain tree species that could pose these serious health risks.


    Choking incidents can occur when horses consume large pieces of tree bark, leading to airway obstruction and potential respiratory distress.

    This risk is especially prevalent among horses that are fed senior feed or have dental issues, as they may resort to chew on the bark due to its softer texture. When ingested, the sharp and fibrous nature of the bark can cause blockage in the esophagus, increasing the likelihood of choking. If the bark gets lodged in the throat, it can lead to severe complications, including hemolytic anemia and respiratory issues.

    To prevent such incidents, it’s crucial to regularly inspect the environment for hazardous items and provide appropriate chew toys and high-quality forage to meet the horse’s natural grazing tendencies.

    Intestinal Blockage

    The ingestion of tree bark can contribute to the development of intestinal blockages in horses, posing significant risks to the digestive health and overall well-being of the animals.

    When horses consume tree bark, there is a potential for the fibrous material to create an obstruction in the intestinal tract, causing discomfort, pain, and possible complications. These blockages can disrupt normal digestion, leading to symptoms such as colic, loss of appetite, and even the inability to pass manure.

    Some types of tree bark contain gallotannins, compounds that can further exacerbate these risks by impairing the digestive processes and potentially causing inflammation of the gastrointestinal lining.

    Given these complexities, it’s crucial for horse owners and caretakers to be vigilant about monitoring the animals’ access to tree bark and ensuring that they have access to appropriate forage alternatives, such as high-quality hay, beet pulp, and other nutritionally balanced feeds. This can help minimize the risk of intestinal blockages and promote the overall health and well-being of the horses.


    Certain tree species contain toxic substances that can harm horses when ingested, leading to a range of health issues and potential toxicity-related complications.

    Horses, due to their sensitive digestive systems, can be affected by the consumption of tree bark from certain species, such as the Yew tree. The bark of Yew trees contains a toxic alkaloid known as taxine, which can have severe effects on equine health. Upon ingestion, it can lead to symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, and in severe cases, cardiac arrhythmias and even death. It’s essential for horse owners to be aware of the specific species of trees in their pastures and surroundings to avoid potential poisoning incidents.

    How Can You Prevent Horses from Eating Tree Bark?

    Implementing preventive measures is essential to deter horses from consuming tree bark, including providing ample forage, using bitter-tasting sprays, promoting mental stimulation, and seeking veterinary advice.

    Ensuring forage availability is crucial to prevent horses from seeking alternative sources like tree bark. A diet rich in quality hay can help satisfy their natural grazing instincts, reducing the likelihood of bark consumption.

    Employing bitter-tasting deterrents on tree bark can discourage horses, as the unpleasant taste can dissuade them from continuing to nibble.

    Providing mental enrichment through toys, companionship, and environmental stimuli can redirect their focus and reduce the urge to consume bark.

    Professional guidance, including consulting a veterinarian or American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals experts, can offer tailored strategies for mitigating this behavior in horses.

    Providing Adequate Forage

    Ensuring horses have access to quality forage and grazing opportunities can reduce the likelihood of them seeking out tree bark as an alternative food source.

    Horses are natural grazers and require the right variety of forage to fulfil their dietary needs. By offering diverse forage options, such as grasses, legumes, and hay, horse owners can discourage them from consuming tree bark. Enriching their diet with forage high in essential nutrients can further minimize the risk of tannin consumption from oak trees.

    Using Bitter-Tasting Sprays

    Bitter-tasting sprays can be applied to tree bark to discourage horses from consuming it, leveraging aversive stimuli to modify their feeding behavior.

    One common natural deterrent used in these sprays is black walnut bark, which contains juglone, a compound known for its bitter flavor. When horses encounter such a spray on the bark, the unpleasant taste acts as an aversive stimulus, conditioning them to avoid consuming the treated areas. This application process requires thorough coverage of the bark to ensure effective deterrence.

    Providing Mental Stimulation

    Offering horses mental stimulation through enriching activities and environmental enhancements can divert their attention from consuming tree bark, promoting positive behavioral patterns.

    This is particularly important when dealing with horses prone to pica, a condition characterized by the consumption of non-nutritive substances such as Cherry tree bark. Providing a variety of enrichment strategies can help satisfy their natural foraging instincts and redirect their focus. Environmental modifications, such as introducing companion animals or rotating pasture areas, can also contribute to reducing the occurrence of bark consumption. Engaging horses in physical activities and behavioral redirection, such as training exercises and interactive play, can further decrease their inclination towards bark consumption.

    Consulting a Veterinarian

    Seeking veterinary guidance and assessment is crucial when addressing tree bark consumption in horses, allowing for tailored intervention and health monitoring.

    Tree bark consumption, particularly from Red maple bark and oak trees, can have serious health implications for horses. Consulting a veterinarian, such as Aida López-Sánchez, PhD, experienced in equine health, can lead to a comprehensive assessment and development of an intervention plan to protect the horse’s well-being. Ongoing monitoring is vital to ensure the treatment’s effectiveness and the horse’s recovery.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Why Do Horses Eat Tree Bark?

    Why do horses eat tree bark?
    Horses may eat tree bark due to a lack of roughage in their diet, boredom, or nutritional deficiencies.

    What are the consequences of horses eating tree bark?

    What are the consequences of horses eating tree bark?
    Eating tree bark can lead to digestive issues, such as colic, and can also cause damage to their teeth and gums.

    What types of trees do horses typically eat bark from?

    What types of trees do horses typically eat bark from?
    Horses may be attracted to the bark of trees such as pine, cedar, and oak due to their strong scent and taste.

    How can I prevent my horse from eating tree bark?

    How can I prevent my horse from eating tree bark?
    You can prevent your horse from eating tree bark by providing them with a diet that meets their nutritional needs and ensuring they have enough roughage through hay and pasture grazing.

    Is it normal for horses to eat tree bark?

    Is it normal for horses to eat tree bark?
    No, it is not a normal behavior for horses to eat tree bark. If your horse is consistently eating bark, it may be a sign of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

    Can eating tree bark be a sign of a health problem in horses?

    Can eating tree bark be a sign of a health problem in horses?
    Yes, horses may eat tree bark as a result of a health issue such as ulcers or mineral deficiencies. It is important to consult a veterinarian if you suspect your horse’s bark-eating behavior is a symptom of a health problem.

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