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What are Road Apples?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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While the term “road apples” may conjure up a pleasant image of apple trees growing by the side of a bucolic country road, the truth is in fact much uglier. This term is used in regional American slang to refer to horse manure, a substance which is only distantly related to apples. Written evidence suggests that people started referring to horse dung as road apples around the mid 20th century.

The term references the fact that the manure of a healthy horse does look sort of like a small apple, in the sense that it is round. When horses were used as a major mode of transportation, they deposited their manure along the way, and one could be forgiven for mistaking a pile of horse poop for a pile of apples when glancing at it from a distance. At one time, horse droppings littered many roads around the world; in some countries today, horses are required to wear special bags to catch their droppings when they are out on the road, to prevent messes.

Now that you know what road apples really are, it might help to know about some of their uses. Horse manure is a great material for mulching and fertilizing, and it can also be used as fuel or as a source of building material. Horse manure has historically been mixed with mud and clay to make adobe, for example, since it is basically perfectly shredded straw.

When road apples were allowed to fall where they might, some people made a profession of collecting them for their various uses. Many cities promoted this, allowing people to profit while also clearing the roads to make them more pleasant for everyone. In areas where there was a surplus for manure or no immediate use for it, things could get rather disgusting. The streets of 19th century New York City, for example, were sometimes thick with horse manure, among numerous other unsavory substances, making travel a perilous proposition.

The term “road apples” has also been used to refer to actors on tour. In this sense, it is presumably a reference to the manure generated by the actor's horses as he or she travels on the road, although it could also be a disparaging comment about acting ability.

You may spot road apples now and then, especially if you live in a rural area. Many riders take shortcuts across minimally trafficked roads, and their horses may on occasion leave a deposit along the way. Road apples can also be seen on heavily trafficked riding trails and paths, and they are of course a ubiquitous feature of the stable and barnyard.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are road apples?

Road apples are a colloquial term for horse droppings. They are often found on roads and trails where horses are ridden or driven. These organic clumps are composed of digested hay, grass, and grains, and can be a natural source of fertilizer. However, in urban settings, they may require cleanup to maintain sanitation and aesthetics.

Are road apples harmful to the environment?

Road apples are generally not harmful to the environment and can actually benefit it by acting as a natural fertilizer. They decompose over time, releasing nutrients back into the soil. However, in high quantities, they could potentially contribute to nutrient overload in waterways, which can lead to algal blooms and negatively impact aquatic ecosystems.

Can road apples be used for composting?

Yes, road apples can be an excellent addition to compost piles. They are rich in nitrogen and can help create a balanced compost. It's important to compost them properly to ensure pathogens are destroyed. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, composting horse manure for at least six months at the right temperature can make it safe for garden use.

How should road apples be disposed of in urban areas?

In urban areas, road apples should be promptly removed to maintain cleanliness. Many cities have regulations requiring horse owners or carriage operators to clean up after their animals. Some use manure catchers attached to the horse's harness. Disposal should follow local waste management guidelines, which may include composting or landfilling.

Do road apples pose any health risks to humans or pets?

Road apples can contain parasites and bacteria that are harmful if ingested by humans or pets. It's important to avoid direct contact and wash hands thoroughly after handling. The risk is minimal if road apples are left undisturbed, but they should be kept away from areas where children play and pets roam.

How long do road apples take to decompose naturally?

The decomposition rate of road apples varies depending on environmental conditions such as moisture, temperature, and the presence of decomposers like insects and microbes. Generally, they can start to break down within a few weeks, but complete decomposition might take several months. In ideal composting conditions, this process can be significantly accelerated.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By julies — On Jul 13, 2011

We have several horses on our farm, and I never thought about their manure as being compared to apples before. It is nothing out of the ordinary to see horse manure along our country roads.

I know that when we attend the 4th of July parade in town, many young children that have not been around horses before are quite curious when they see their manure.

I have used their manure as a fertilizer for my garden for many years. You have to be careful that you mix it in with other material, otherwise you will burn your plants if you apply this straight.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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