Salt blocks are hard, medium to small sized chunks of mineral found in horse pastures, fields, and barnyards around the world.
In this article:
In this article, you’ll learn about why salt blocks are an important part of a horse’s diet. If you’re not a horse owner, and perhaps just wondering what those white, brown, blue, or red blocks are, you’ll learn about these mysterious blocks that are actually edible!
What are Salt Blocks
500 years ago herds of wild horses roamed over huge tracts of land in North America. Periodically, these herds always returned to certain areas not for the grasses and food supply- but for minerals. Like humans, horses need salt and trace amounts of other minerals to stay healthy.
When horses have a diet of grass, they may not get all the minerals they need from their food. Since modern horses can’t wander a few miles to a naturally occurring salt deposit, horse owners place salt blocks – chunks of formed minerals – into pastures.
Salt blocks are just what they sound like. They are solid blocks of salt that can be put in a pasture or a stall for horses to lick throughout the day as they need it. There are big blocks that can be left out in the field for multiple horses to access, or smaller ones that can be mounted on the wall of a stall. They also come in a couple of different colors, like white and reddish brown.
Not all horses need salt blocks
Horses can eat three primary types of food: grass or hay (dried grass), whole or minimally processed grains, and pelleted horse feed.
Most horses that are ridden often, shown in horse shows, used in riding lessons, or that do not have access to plenty of grass pastures are fed pelleted horse food. These horses do not need salt blocks because the scientist-formulated feed includes all the salt and trace minerals a horse needs to stay healthy.
Horse salt blocks are lumps of minerals kept in pastures so that horses that are fed unprocessed food (like grass and whole grains) can lick the salt block to get the minerals they need. (Click here to learn more about what foods horses eat and treats they like)
Recognizing Horse Salt Blocks
Salt blocks may appear as standalone blocks in an otherwise empty field, or be shielded from the elements with a platform or even a rainproof cover.
Salt blocks can look very different as they are consumed, as illustrated in the images below. The block on the right side once looked just like the block on the left! Salt blocks are used up slowly as horses lick them and as they erode in the element.
New salt blocks have square corners and a molded shape.
As horses or other livestock lick the salt and mineral blocks, the blocks become smaller, oddly shaped, and discolored.
Why salt blocks Don’t melt in the rain
Salt blocks do slowly erode in the rain, but- like the salt flats ancient horses once visited – hardened salt takes a long time to erode.
Most horse owners buy a salt block and a mineral block each year, however this can vary based on how many horses are in the pasture with the salt block and the climate. How fast a salt block is used up may even vary based on how much a horse sweats! Like humans, when horses sweat they lose electrolytes – including salt – which must be replaced.
All Horses Need Salt
Salt is an electrolyte that is a vital nutrient for horses. 1 Salt (sodium chloride) is used in the brain, the digestive tract, is part of sweat production, as well as many other body functions. In addition, it helps with attracting and retaining water. Ingesting salt is very helpful in keeping horses hydrated, especially in hot weather. When horses eat salt, or lick a salt block, the salt makes them thirsty and encourages them to drink more water. Salt blocks can also provide some additional minerals that they may be missing out on in their diet.
Types of Salt Blocks
There are two main types of salt blocks that are commonly used for horses. One is a block of pure standard salt. These are usually white in color, and do not contain any other trace minerals. The other is a mineral block, which is usually more of a reddish color. Mineral blocks contain trace amounts of other important minerals in addition to salt, including zinc, copper, and iron. It is important to know that these blocks still contain primarily salt, and will not provide enough of the trace minerals to satisfy your horse’s daily intake needs.
Pros of Salt Blocks:
Two main advantages of using a salt block is how easy it can be to access for the horse, and how minimal the effort is to maintain it for the caretaker.
Can be Accessed as Needed
A great benefit of having a salt block in a stall or pasture is that the horse, or horses, can get to it at any time. Since horses will often crave salt if they are not getting enough, having a block around allows them to supplement their salt intake as they need it. A large block will also last a while, so it is not something you need to worry about replacing as often as a loose salt option.
Another benefit of a salt block is that it can be left in a pasture or stall. Just set it, and forget it (for the most part). This means you don’t have to worry about measuring out loose salt to add to their feed, or checking a bucket to make sure they haven’t run out yet. It just requires a quick check every now and then to be sure they haven’t finished the block off yet, or there are no chunks of it broken off that they might try to eat and choke on.
Cons of Salt Blocks:
The two biggest drawbacks to salt blocks are that they do not provide enough salt and minerals to meet the needs of most horses, and that it is difficult to monitor how much salt a horse is getting from it daily.
Most Horses Don’t Get Enough Salt
Horses don’t generally get enough of their daily salt needs through a salt block alone. They may need access to salt in other forms as well, which can be done by adding it to their feed, or having loose salt available for them in a trough or bucket. Horses have a smooth tongue, unlike the rough tongue of cows, which makes it harder for them to get the most out of a salt or mineral block.
Difficult to Monitor Intake Amount
It is important to be aware of your horse’s salt consumption. It is difficult to do this with a salt block, especially if it is shared by multiple horses in a pasture. Most horses will only eat as much salt as their body needs. However, some horses, particularly if they are only kept in a stall, might use a salt block as a way to relieve boredom and continue to lick or even chew on the block beyond what they physically need. If they ingest too much salt, it could become toxic, and if they manage to bite off chunks of it they could choke on it.
Salt Block Alternative: Loose Mineral Salt
Some horses prefer loose salt to a block. For these horses, you can provide them with a separate bucket just for salt to be poured into. Then they can lick up as much of the salt as they need. Other horses might do better with loose salt, or sodium enriched supplements, added to their feed. Both of these options can be done in addition to free access to a salt block as well.
Deciding whether or not to use a salt block will depend a lot on each individual horse. Some horses love them and others ignore them. Some prefer pure salt over mineral blocks, and vice versa. Salt blocks can be very helpful in supplementing your horse’s salt intake, just be aware they might need additional access to salt and minerals by other means to fulfill all of their daily mineral needs.
Research sources used for this article:
- “Fresh water should be available at all times, and the horse should have access to a salt block or loose salt” Jarvis, N. G. (2009). Nutrition of the aged horse. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice, 25(1), 155-166. [↩]