The Scoop on Poop (pile 1)

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24 Jan The Scoop on Poop (pile 1)

Sh*t happens…in fact, in the average horse, about 50lbs (23 kg) of it every day or 9 tons per year… but don’t poo-poo the poo, it can actually tell you a lot about health of your horse and we can put it to good use in the environment too!

In the first pile of this two pile heap, we’ll look at what ‘meadow muffins’ can tell us about the health of our horse.  In the second pile, we will explore what we can do with it!

The Process of Elimination

Ever ridden a horse that stops to poop?  It can seem like a LIFETIME, especially when you’re in the middle of a competitive arena!  However, in reality, each defecation only lasts about 15 seconds.  How many times this is repeated throughout the day will depend on your horse’s age, sex and diet.

On average, mares and geldings poop 6-8 times per day, and stallions and foals can do double that.  So, this gives you ample opportunity to do some poop sleuthing to evaluate your horse’s health on a daily basis…yes, non-horsey people WILL think you’re weird, but you’re in good company here!

Vital Signs

Along with Temperature, Pulse and Respiration, you need to consider faecal production as one of your horse’s vital signs (TPPR:)).  What your horse eats can affect the colour and consistency of their faeces, so it’s important to know what is normal for YOUR horse.  In your horse’s health chart, make a note of where they poop and how much they poop.

If they’re out in the pasture, take time to go out there and do some good old-fashioned poop scooping …not only will it help you to monitor your horse’s health, it’s a very inexpensive, efficient form of parasite control and is a good form of exercise 🙂

While the following may sound like an excerpt from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it’s aimed at giving you an insight into whether or not your horse’s poop is too soft, too firm, too gritty, too colourful, too bitty or just right!

Too soft

Too Soft (Photo courtesy of NCCLAYCLUB)

There are varying degrees of ‘soft’, from ‘cow pat’ consistency to ‘painting-the-stall-walls’ diarrhoea.  The former may be nothing to worry about; the latter can indicate a life-threatening problem.  Considering the massive ability of the horse’s colon to absorb water, changes in faecal consistency signify something major is going on in the colon and need close monitoring and veterinary assessment.

Diarrhoea can be grouped into four main categories:

  • Infectious e.g. bacterial salmonellosis, clostridiosis, equine proliferative enteropathy
  • Inflammatory e.g. eosinophilic enteritis
  • Cancerous e.g. lymphoma
  • Management Related i.e. making sudden changes in diet, exposing the horse to particularly stressful situations such as trailering.  Older horses can have chronic loose stools and this can often be improved or resolved by increasing the fibre in the diet.  Some medications can cause diarrhoea; pre & probiotics may be useful.

If you find your horse has suddenly developed a case of the trots (and not those of the gaited persuasion) call your vet.  This is very important when you have concurrent changes in attitude or appetite, and CRUCIAL in foals as they can become significantly dehydrated and go downhill, rapidly.

Too firm

Too firm (Photo courtesy MaxAtkinsBlog)

Constipation in the horse is more accurately referred to as an ‘impaction’, and it is a common cause of colic in the horse.  One of the cardinal rules of feeding is to make sure your horse has CLEAN FRESH WATER AVAILABLE AT ALL TIMES….another personal mantra of mine is ‘if you would not drink it then do not expect your horse to either!”

An inadequate water supply is a primary cause of dry feces and, coupled with a high dry matter intake (e.g. hay versus fresh pasture, or grain based diet versus forage based diet) can easily lead to impaction problems.

Your horse will drink, on average, 5-10 gallons (19-38l) per day depending on the individual and a variety of external factors such as diet, humidity, exercise.  Certain extremes in environment can dictate water availability, i.e. when it freezes, or is in short supply in hot & humid environments.

(Please note:  a river/creek/pond is NOT an acceptable form of water provision for your horse!  All accessible large bodies of water should be fenced off from your horses for environmental, safety, and health issues.)

Other things such as stress, transport, pain, & lack of movement (i.e. if the horse is stalled) can also have a negative on gut motility and have the potential to cause impactions.
Too gritty

Glove test for sand accumulation (Photo courtesy of Western Shooting Horse)

If your horse grazes in sandy soil pastures, or eats off a sandy or fine gravel surface, you may notice that the poop is particularly sandy.  However, before you go grabbing you magnifying glass, follow this simple method of determining if you have a sand problem.

  1. Place six faecal balls in a glass jar, or a palpation sleeve (if you just happen to have one handy or your vet is kind enough to donate to your cause)
  2. Fill with water (about double the volume), mix well, and allow it to settle for about 15 mins.
  3. If sand settles to the bottom of the jar/glove, it may indicate he’s ingesting it but passing it easily.
  4. If you have no sand, it either means your horse is not consuming substantial amounts of sand OR he’s just not passing the sand…which could put him at risk for colic.

There are a number of management steps you can follow to help reduce the risk of sand ingestion, the first being to ensure your horse has a constant flow of fibre/forage through his GI tract.  If you’re at all concerned, call your vet.  They can come and listen to the gut sounds with a stethoscope and suggest further management options that will help you get on ahead of a potential gritty issue.

Too Colourful

While we’re not going to find faecal balls resembling the annual village Easter-egg hunt (hopefully!), manure can come in a variety of colours and textures,

  • Alfalfa often results in very green balls.
  • A high beet pulp intake can result in reddish-brown faecal balls +/- sticky clear film
  • A horse that is unaccustomed to vegetable oil can produces faeces that are loose, greyish and oily.
  • A mucous film will look whitish or almost yellow.  This tells us the manure has sat inside the GI tract too long, and it can take some of the lining of the GI tract with it as it chugs along.

Two colours that should have your alarm bells ringing and your finger hitting speed dial for your veterinarian are:

  • Red – this can indicate bleeding in the back-end of the GI tract, such as with rectal tear.
  • Black – this can indicate bleeding much further forward in the GI tract where blood has been digested before being excreted.  It is very uncommon to see in horses (compared to dogs and cats).  The exception to this rule is the ‘neonatal meconium’, a newborn’s first manure that comes in a near black, pelleted form.

Too bitty

Seeing lots of long strands of hay or undigested grains in your horse’s poo?  This could signify dental issues that may be preventing your horse from being able to chew his food sufficiently.

Now, while there is some evidence in the research archives to suggest poor dentition results in long stems of roughage in the manure, there is actually little evidence to support the validity that floating teeth has a direct effect on fibre length.  With that being said, it still warrants a check-up from your veterinary dentist or licensed dental technician, if you have them in your country.  (Be warned, there are many self-certified ‘experts’ in this field, you can read more about that here).

Be aware that poor dentition can result from no dentistry, half-ass dentistry, or overtly aggressive dentistry.  The latter has a more significant effect on the functional capacity of the teeth.  I have seen horses that have been subject to heavy handed floating, to the point where their whole occlusal or grinding surface has been ground smoother than a baby’s bottom.   This renders the whole dental arcade worthless, is a significant health and welfare concern and can take YEARS to correct, if ever.

Just right!

Just Right! (Photo courtesy of Planet Equus)

  • Well-formed faecal balls
  • Noticeable stems but no chunks of food
  • Fairly uniform colour
  • Little odour (compared to meat eaters!)
  • No mucous covering
  • Small amount of liquid immediately before and after may also be seen.


So the take home scoop on poop is know your horse! Consistency is the key.  Make changes to the diet gradually to give the micro flora time to adapt.  If you notice anything out of the norm, be sure to call your vet.  It can take up to 3 days to get from bucket to barrow so you could already be behind the pile!

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