What are Road Apples?

Woman with hand on hip

While the term “road apples” might conjure up a pleasant image of apple trees growing alongside a bucolic country road, the truth is actually much uglier. This term is used in regional American slang to refer to horse manure, a substance that is only remotely related to apples. Written evidence suggests that people began referring to horse dung as road apples in the mid-20th century.

The term refers to the fact that the manure of a healthy horse looks like a small apple, in the sense that it is round. When horses were used as the main mode of transport, 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 looking at it from a distance. At the same time, horse droppings littered many roads around the world; in some countries today, horses are required to wear special bags to collect their droppings when on the road, to avoid messes.

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

When roadside apples were dropped where they belonged, some people took up the profession of collecting them for their various uses. Many cities have promoted this, allowing people to profit while also cleaning roads to make them more pleasant for everyone. In areas where there was too much manure or no immediate use for it, things could get a little gross. The streets of 19th-century New York City, for example, were sometimes filled with horse dung, among countless other unsavory substances, making travel a dangerous proposition.

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The term “apples of the road” has also been used to refer to touring actors. In that sense, it’s presumably a reference to the dung generated by the actor’s horses as he travels on the road, though it could also be a derogatory comment on acting skill.

You may spot apples on the road from time to time, especially if you live in a rural area. Many riders take shortcuts on roads with minimal traffic and their horses may occasionally leave a deposit along the way. Road apples can also be seen on heavily trafficked trails and paths and of course are a ubiquitous feature of the stable and corral.

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