Digging Deeper: Surprising Instincts That Drive Horses to Dig a Hole

As a longtime rancher and horse lover myself, I’ve seen my fair share of equine excavations over the years.

In fact, just last week I went out to the pasture and found my old pal Dusty diligently working on a hole the size of a kiddie pool!

After doing some digging (pun intended) into this equine phenomenon, I’ve uncovered some of the main reasons our four-legged friends feel compelled to engage in their digging shenanigans.

Horses dig holes to find relief from bugs, specifically flies that tend to hover near the ground.

Digging holes allows horses to stand in them to avoid insect irritation and discomfort.

But why was Dusty so determined to dig that giant pit?

As I reflected on what might have prompted this particular digging episode, I remembered it was mid-summer and those darn flies were out in full force! Lightbulb moment!

Escaping Those Pesky Flies

During the warmer months, flies swarm near the ground looking for places to lay their eggs. All that buzzing around horses’ legs drives them bonkers.


By carving out body-sized holes in the dirt, horses can essentially create their own fly-free standing pits to find sweet, sweet relief from those bothersome bugs!

I’ve noticed horses tend to choose softer, looser soil when embarking on these digging escapades. This makes it easier for them to carve out these dirt bathtubs.

Dusty chose a spot near the edge of the pasture where the soil was nice and loose, allowing him to dig a hole large enough to accommodate his big ol’ quarter horse frame.

Flies are attracted to horses because of their tendency to drop manure and urine frequently as they graze throughout the day. All those waste piles draw flies in like a magnet.

The flies buzz around the horses’ legs and bellies, looking for places to lay their eggs in the fresh manure and wet vegetation. This sets off a maddening cycle of constant biting and irritation.

No wonder Dusty was so determined to excavate his enormous pit – it allowed him to escape the hundreds of flies relentlessly swarming his lower half as he grazed in the pasture.

I could see him standing contentedly in his dug out hole, swishing his tail with satisfaction as those pesky flies buzzed around the edges but couldn’t reach him.

Some flies like horse flies even bite and nip at horses’ skin, leaving behind painful, itchy welts. Plus certain species can spread diseases.

So horses have extra motivation to evade them however possible. I’ll often see horses rapidly switching their tails and stomping their feet to ward off flies when they can’t dig holes to hide in.

Bot flies are one of the worst offenders, laying eggs on horses’ legs that then hatch into parasitic larvae burrowing into their skin.

Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl! So I certainly don’t blame Dusty and his pasture mates for pulling out all the stops to avoid fly season, even if it means rearranging the landscape!

Seeking Relief from the Heat

In addition to fleeing flies, horses dig holes to escape the heat. By standing in a pit, horses can take advantage of the naturally cooler temperature below ground level.

On hot summer days, I’ve seen horses hang out in their self-dug wells for hours to chill out and beat the heat.

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This was likely a factor in Dusty’s mammoth digging undertaking. The day before he created that massive hole, we had temperatures near 100 degrees.

The next morning when I found his pit, you could actually feel the cooler earth inside it, like Dusty’s own personal air-conditioned space!

Horses can overheat easily since they have such large bodies and are so active while grazing and roaming around pastures.

All that movement generates internal heat, especially in the summer months. Plus their digestion produces extra warmth.

When the mercury spikes, I’ll see my horses start to sweat profusely as their main means of cooling off. But when it gets really hot, that just isn’t enough. Standing in a shady hole in the ground can provide some extra relief.

The soil a few feet down remains closer to the average annual temperature in that location, creating a cooler microclimate.

In Montana during the summer, the ground temperature is often around 50-60 degrees F at the depth of a typical horse hole, while the air temp can be 90+ degrees. That 30 degree difference is a welcome break!

Dusty chose the perfect spot under a tree near the pond, where the ground was shaded and moist, making it even cooler. Clever boy! I could see his coated had dried off after an hour of standing in his personal equine air conditioning unit.

Some horses even lie down fully in their dug out holes to maximize the cooling effects. It’s pretty cute seeing only their heads poking out from their underground hideaways.

Out of Boredom

Sometimes horses just dig for the sake of something to do. Digging provides bored horses with entertainment and stimulation.


This is most likely to occur with horses that don’t have pasturemates or lack adequate mental stimulation in their day-to-day lives.

Dusty is out in a large pasture with a handful of other geldings, so boredom probably wasn’t the main driver behind his digging escapades. But I’m sure the inherent satisfaction of moving dirt around gave him something fun and engaging to do for a while!

Horses are very active and social creatures, used to roaming up to 15 miles a day in the wild in large herds.

So when domesticated horses are confined to a pasture alone, they can easily get bored, especially if that area is small and lacks enrichment.

Digging provides physical activity and mental stimulation. I’ve noticed some horses even seem to enjoy the feeling of moving the dirt around and making piles. It taps into their natural foraging instincts.

One time I had a young gelding named Buddy who would dig giant holes along his pasture fence line whenever he was by himself. But once I introduced another horse companion for him, his obsessive digging stopped almost overnight! He had a new buddy to graze and play with.

For bored diggers, providing equine companionship, larger turnout space, toys like balls and scratching posts, and regular exercise can help redirect that energy in a more positive way.

Searching for Water

In desert environments or during droughts, horses may dig holes in search of water. With their strong hooves and digging instincts, horses are able to break through dry topsoil to access moisture below.

I witnessed this firsthand on a riding trip I took through Arizona last summer. It was the peak of dry season and natural water sources were extremely limited. My trail horse Buck soon took matters into his own hooves by digging craters in the bone-dry creek beds we passed.

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At first I was puzzled why he kept trying to paw up the ground until I realized – he was smelling tiny traces of subsurface water he was trying to access. Horses have an excellent sense of smell and can detect moisture buried feet underground.

Sure enough, a couple times Buck managed to reach damp soil after extensive digging efforts. And I actually saw a few pockets of muddy water begin to pool in the bottom of his excavated holes. So in harsh, arid environments this tendency to literally dig for water can serve horses well.

This innate ability to sniff out water has helped horses survive as a species for millennia across deserts and prairies. Human explorers would often follow the lead of their equine companions when searching for scarce water sources. The horses seemed to magically know where to dig to find it.

So next time your horse is obsessively digging in the pasture after a drought, they may be acting on ancient instincts to uncover a precious water source. Just be careful they don’t accidentally strike a pipe or wire in their water quest!

Hiding Special Treats

In addition to digging for water, horses may also paw at the ground to bury and hide special treats. This furtive behavior serves to safely stash extra tasty morsels for later.

One of my veteran riding horses, Socks, would always bury part of any fresh carrot or apple I shared in a hole near the fence line.

At first I thought he was just dropping pieces clumsily. But over time I noticed his deliberate motions to cover up the fruits and veggies.

Turns out horses have excellent memories when it comes to locations of food resources. Days or even weeks later, I would notice Socks meander over to where he had buried apple chunks and start pawing purposefully until he uncovered his hidden treasures.

This caching tendency likely stems from wild horses needing to preserve scarce, high calorie foods across vast natural habitats and migrations. Burying surplus energy-rich foods allowed them to survive during periods of scarcity in the open plains.

Observing this quirky treat-burying behavior firsthand with Socks gave me an appreciation for horses’ survival instincts and impressive memories. Though I’m sure he was equally motivated by greediness to keep his treats safely hidden from pasturemates!

Establishing Territory

Both wild and domestic horses may engage in digging behaviors to mark and establish their home territory or resting area.

My retired school horse Mateo would always carve out a signature hole along the pasture fence line where he slept at night. He paced and pawed in that spot each evening without fail. Over time, his resting crater became very pronounced.

It seems Mateo was creating a familiar “nest” for himself through this daily digging routine. I could tell he felt most at ease bedding down in the depression he had shaped himself over time.

In the wild, lead stallions will mark out their band’s home area by creating dug out scrapes in the ground, sometimes with urine or dung. This sends a clear “no trespassing” message to rival horses. The leaders’ digging defines the geographical boundaries.

Even domestic horses like Mateo retain these innate tendencies to alter their environment through digging as a means of control and personalizing their space. So next time you notice your horse obsessively digging in a certain spot, it may be their way of making themselves at home.

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Horses will sometimes engage in a good dirt roll right after digging a nice hole. This combination serves as a self-grooming ritual that helps dislodge pesky insects.

I’ll often see horses paw vigorously at the earth and then promptly flop onto their side and wiggle into the loose dirt. Rolling in soil after digging helps grind in particles that can ret a horse’s coat to dislodge dried sweat, dirt, and irritating bugs.

This natural grooming process explains why you’ll come across randomly dug out holes with equine body impressions right alongside. The dirt bath follows the initial hole excavation.

I noticed my chestnut gelding Rusty would always dig and roll after getting sweaty on a summer ride. The cool, freshly unearthed soil helped soothe his irritated skin and coat. Plus it satisfied that innate urge to bathe in Mother Nature’s natural grooming products.

Horses will also rub up against trees or solid surfaces after digging and rolling to help work the dirt through their coat and slough off loose hair. So look for telltale dirt lines on trunks and fence posts near your horses’ favorite roll holes.

Facilitating this grooming ritual can help curtail excessive full-body rolling that destroys pasture grasses. And allowing natural coat cleansing minimizes the need for harsh shampoos that strip beneficial oils.

Instinctual Legacy

Most horses feel the urge to dig holes simply because the behavior is ingrained in their instincts as prey animals that evolved traversing rugged landscapes.

Digging is something horses are just “born to do” thanks to millions of years of equine evolution. They inherited the tendency from early equid ancestors who originated nearly 55 million years ago in North America.

Modern horses are driven by leftover instincts adapted for the terrain and climate their ancient relatives encountered. Digging remains coded in their DNA as a survival skill, even if domesticated horses don’t always need to employ it.

I sometimes just have to stand back and admire the legacy of my horses’ digging behaviors. Watching them enthusiastically carve out chunks of earth reminds me of their ties to primeval horses roaming the open prairies.

Rather than fighting this innate urge, we can channel it by designating certain digging areas in pastures. Or providing sturdy horse toys designed for pawing and scratching those itches.

Remember, what looks like a destructive mess to us taps into millions of years of equine evolution. By honoring those wild origins, we can better understand our modern horses and their irrepressible need to dig.

Groundbreaking Behavior: A Closer Look at Why Horses Love to Dig

While digging holes can create craters that are hazards for horse and human legs alike, it’s an instinctual behavior that provides horses with comfort and entertainment.

Some key takeaways:

  • Flies and heat are prime culprits, causing horses to dig standing pits as a refuge
  • Loose, soft dirt makes for easier excavation work
  • Boredom can also prompt horses to dig for something to do
  • Providing companionship, toys, and exercise redirects digging energy

Understanding what compels this common equine activity can help horse owners make changes to minimize excessive digging. But sometimes you just have to let horses be horses!


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