Home » How To Care For Horsefield Tortoise [A Complete Guide]
how to take care of a horsefield tortoise

How To Care For Horsefield Tortoise [A Complete Guide]

The Horsefield tortoise, also known as the Russian tortoise or Afghan tortoise, is a popular family pet. It’s beloved due to its small size, with the average adult measuring just 5-10 inches.

Horsefield tortoises can live for 50-100 years. They can keep themselves occupied and live alone but don’t mind company. Of course, you need to know how to set up their enclosure correctly.

Horsefield Enclosure Setup

Despite their diminutive size, Horsefield tortoises dislike tight, enclosed spaces.

They prefer large areas of ground where they can roam freely whenever they like. Putting a Horsefield tortoise in a small tank can lead to a stressed, depressed, and unhealthy tortoise.

The ideal Horsefield tortoise enclosure is at least 6 feet wide and 6 feet long. The height should be 2 feet from the ground, giving them adequate room to play, exercise, dig, and explore. 

If you want to house more than one Horsefield tortoise, you need to provide twice the enclosure space.


Horsefield tortoises require UVB lighting to assist with vitamin D3 absorption and metabolization.

They thrive in temperature gradients of 64-77 degrees Fahrenheit in the cool range and 82-95 degrees Fahrenheit in the hot range. 

Ensure that the enclosure is made of wood to insulate the heat and regulate the temperature. Also, it should have lighting and heating fixtures, such as:

  • UVB lamps
  • Spot bulbs
  • Heat lamps
  • Basking bulbs


Horsefield tortoises need enrichment to keep them active and entertained.

Place items like rocks, moist hides, pebbles, woodblocks, bathing dishes, and logs strategically within the enclosure. This will allow them to play, explore and seek solace if it feels insecure or threatened.

Other horsefield tortoise enrichment ideas include:

  • Alternating between foods
  • Giving your tortoise puzzles and rewards
  • Setting up mazes in the enclosure
  • Giving your tortoise pushing toys
  • Encouraging digging activities through the right substrate
  • Setting up climbing objects
  • Socializing and interacting with the tortoise

Are Horsefield Tortoises Easy To Keep?

Horsefield tortoises can be kept indoors or outdoors.

Horsefields have specific dietary needs. If the fat content of their meals is too high, their energy levels and digestion may suffer. They’re strict herbivores, so you can’t feed them animal protein, even insects.

Horsefield tortoises rarely thrive in a reptile vivarium. Consider getting a more open-air tank or outdoor pen if you have recently acquired one to keep the enclosure more balanced and dry.

what to feed a horsefield tortoise

What Size Does A Horsefield Tortoise Grow To?

Full-grown males average 5-8 inches, while female adults average 6-10 inches. It takes the Horsefield tortoise about 10 years to reach maturity.

Male Horsefields grow to their maximum size faster than females. However, their growth rate and final size can vary depending on their living conditions.

According to Zoo Biology, tortoises grow faster in the wild due to their higher feeding intensity.

Horsefield Tortoise Life Expectancy

Horsefields have a long lifespan, living for upwards of 50 years.

According to Natural Ecology Evolution, this life expectancy can be attributed to genetic and evolutionary characteristics. However, the life expectancy of Horsefields depends on their care and diet.

Illnesses, injuries, and infections can reduce the lifespan of a Horsefield. Therefore, it’s recommended that you take your tortoise to the vet for regular checkups.

Do You Have To Hibernate A Horsefield Tortoise?

Horsefield tortoises need to hibernate (or, more accurately, brumate) once a year.

Since they’re adapted to the warm Mediterranean climate, they hibernate during the winter. If you’re preparing to brumate a tortoise, ensure it’s fit, healthy, and has enough weight to survive its long sleep.

In the weeks before brumation, gradually reduce your tortoise’s meals so that no food remains in its system during the brumation process.

If you’re brumating a tortoise indoors, bathe it in clean, warm water and dry its body before putting it into a hibernation box. Ensure the temperature is controlled.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Smell?

Horsefield tortoises have a natural odor, but most owners consider it inoffensive. At most, a healthy and well-cared-for tortoise has a musky scent.

Of course, some factors may cause your Horsefield to smell bad, including infections, illnesses, and poor hygiene. In most cases, a tortoise will smell like the substrate of its tank.

When you find an unpleasant smell coming from a tortoise, check its tank for:

  • Hidden, rotten food
  • Dirty food and water bowls
  • Accumulated poop
  • Damp substrate

This will go away after you clean the enclosure and bathe the tortoise.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Dig?

Horsefield tortoises mostly dig to create burrows or trenches. Here, they bury themselves to:

  • Hide
  • Sleep
  • Regulate their temperature
  • Lay eggs
  • Fun

The enclosure needs a substrate that lets them freely dig and burrow. Since they’re natural burrowers, ensure the substrate is at least 4 inches deep so that the tortoise has room to explore.

Ideally, select a dry substrate that’s not susceptible to humidity changes.

Substrate for Horsefield Tortoises

Excess humidity from the substrate can lead to illnesses like shell rot.

Loose particles can also stick to the tortoise’s food and be swallowed when eating, leading to impaction.

Shredded paper is another commonly used substrate for indoor enclosures. However, it’s not conducive for burrowing and may not be as fun for your pet.

A herb bedding is usually good as it’s easy to clean and maintain.

Ensure that it’s kept dry and clean. Damp conditions are unfavorable to Horsefield tortoises, making them more susceptible to eye problems and respiratory infections.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Like to Be Handled?

Horsefields can become overstimulated when they’re handled too often. It’s best to keep playtime to 5-10 minutes or for longer periods every other day.

Horsefields can be trained and socialized to tolerate the company of their owners. The earlier you enter the tortoise’s life, the more accepting it’ll be.

There are stories of Horsefields enjoying strokes and gentle rubs, especially on their necks. Sometimes, they’ll even stretch out their necks toward you.   

When picking up your tortoise, ensure that you use both hands, as this provides a solid grip and minimizes the risk of accidentally dropping your tortoise, which may lead to a cracked shell.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Bite?

Horsefield tortoises can bite, and this nip can be painful, depending on the pressure exerted.

Its bite may draw blood if the tortoise is scared and wants to cause harm. Even tame Horsefields may use their hardened beaks to bite each other, humans, and other pets. The main reasons for this include:

Feeling Threatened

Your tortoise might snap its mouth at your finger when you attempt to touch it. This is most likely when your tortoise is new to the home and hasn’t grown used to your presence.

Young Horsefields are especially prone to biting, so keep your hands away from its face until it grows comfortable with you.

Establishing Dominance

Snapping can intimidate other tortoises, pets, or humans into backing down and giving them space. That, in effect, makes that area the tortoise’s private territory.

This is common among males, which bite and ram each other to fight over mating partners.

Biting By Mistake

A well-raised and calm Horsefield will rarely want to bite you. Instead, it may grow confused when you dangle your finger near its face.

Alternatively, it may get startled and snap at it before realizing the finger belongs to you.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Like Company?

Horsefield tortoises don’t require company, and most are happy to live by themselves if given the proper enrichment through toys, food puzzles, and mazes. If socialized from a young age, a Horsefield may like your company but won’t grow lonely when you’re away.

Horsefields can be kept with other tortoises of their species, but you’ll need to take certain precautions. Males are naturally aggressive with each other, often fighting for dominance.

These can be limited if you give all the tortoises enough space to carve out their territories. As long as they can get away and unwind from each other, they can live harmoniously.

You can also place dividers in the tank, so the tortoises can interact without being able to cause trouble.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Need UV Light?

Tortoises need ample UVB light to enable their bodies to absorb vitamin D3. Fluorescent light bulbs are a good choice, providing the necessary rays without emitting too much heat.

If your tortoise is kept outside, you can circumvent the need for a light bulb with natural sunlight. Ensure that the tortoise has access to direct sunlight and shady spots.

Tortoises dislike static temperatures or unobstructed sun exposure. They need to shift from one area to the next throughout the day, so set up the enclosure with a thermal gradient. 

Do Horsefield Tortoises Need a Heat Lamp?

Horsefield tortoises need an overhead heat source or lamp. Since they’re cold-blooded (ectothermic), like all tortoises, this is necessary to regulate their body heat.

Aim for temperatures between 84-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Basking lights are ideal, so your tortoise can move in and out of the heat when required.

Ensure the lamp is positioned where your tortoise can’t touch, bump, or knock it over. Check the capacity of the heating bulb and back it away from your tortoise until it isn’t too hot.

You can opt for ceramic heat plates that provide no light but keep your tortoise’s enclosure warm.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Shed Their Skin?

It is normal for Horsefield tortoises to shed their skin as they grow.

Unlike snakes, a Horsefield’s skin will flake off in patches, not in one smooth piece. This can give a Horsefield tortoise a dusty or ashy appearance, which is natural as it goes through this process.

This will pass in time, leaving the tortoise with fresh scutes, scales, and flesh. Don’t peel off the flakes, as this might cause bodily abrasions. You can speed along the process with soaks.

What To Feed A Horsefield Tortoise

Horsefield tortoises are herbivorous, so they can’t eat animal protein. So, avoid feeding them insects or meat, as even worms can adversely affect their digestive process.

In the category of plants, Horsefields need a diet rich in fiber and calcium while low in fat. Leafy vegetables and non-poisonous plants are good staples.

Horsefields enjoy a combination of vegetables, weeds, flowers, and grasses. Good choices can include:

Include nutritional supplements, especially calcium, in your Horsefield’s diet. Calcium is essential for healthy shell development and the production of vitamin D3.

What Not to Feed a Horsefield Tortoise

Foods to avoid giving a Horsefield tortoise include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Bananas

These aren’t dangerous, but these foods are low in calcium and essential nutrients.

If your tortoise feeds on wild plants, ensure they’re a safe, non-toxic variety. Flowers that appear harmless but are poisonous to Horsefields include:

  • Buttercups
  • Begonias
  • Daffodils
  • Ivy
are horsefield tortoise easy to keep?

Horsefield Tortoise Health Problems

Horsefield tortoises are vulnerable to certain illnesses and diseases. To keep your tortoise healthy, be aware of the early warning signs. The most common medical issues include:

Respiratory Illnesses

According to The Veterinary Journal, respiratory infections are a leading cause of declining tortoise populations. Horsefield tortoises are prone to respiratory infections caused by:

  • Bacteria from dirty enclosures
  • Weakened immune system from poor diet
  • Sudden drops in temperatures, particularly during the winter

A Horsefield tortoise likely has a respiratory infection if it begins wheezing or producing a mucous-heavy discharge from its nostrils and mouth.

Empty Gut Syndrome

Horsefield tortoises may be vulnerable to empty gut syndrome (dumping syndrome). This involves the digestive process moving along faster than normal, emptying the gut before it can glean sufficient nutrients.

Parasites, like protozoa, can be a leading cause of dumping syndrome. You can tell if a Horsefield has this condition if you find undigested food in its poop.

Horsefield Tortoise Shell Problems

Tortoises have resilient shells, but they’re not invincible. Common shell problems include:

Shell Rot

Shell rot occurs when bacteria enter the tortoise’s body via lesions and cuts to the shell. If not diagnosed and treated sufficiently early, this condition can lead to blood infections, such as sepsis.

Horsefield tortoises are vulnerable since they dig and burrow into the wet ground. That’s why you should provide a Horsefield with a drier substrate, even if it prefers a damp substrate.

The clearest sign of shell rot is pitting, which is the formation of holes on the underside of the shell. Before this happens, check for white patches on the surface of the shell.

Shell Pyramiding

A poor diet causes shell pyramiding, and the damage can’t be reversed. This condition affects the carapace, causing it to grow abnormally, like a pyramid.

Shell pyramiding in Horsefield tortoises varies in severity, from acute to chronic. In more severe cases, it can hinder the mobility of a tortoise and impact how it mates.

Soft Shell (Metabolic Bone Disease)

Soft shell (metabolic bone disease) is due to a vitamin D or calcium deficiency. Horsefield tortoises need UV light to synthesize vitamin D3, which is needed to absorb calcium.

Inadequate UV light, particularly in young Horsefield tortoises, can lead to an imbalance in the calcium-phosphorus ratio, leading to soft shell. The early symptoms of soft shell include:

  • Inhibited movement
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Unexpected fractures in the limbs
  • Increased risk of egg-binding

Sufficient calcium is required to prevent soft shell. Dandelions and cuttlefish are particularly good sources of calcium for Horsefield tortoises, but they shouldn’t eat too much.

Caring for a Horsefield is similar to raising other small tortoises. As long as you choose the right substrate, meet their dietary needs, clean the enclosure, and entertain them, Horsefield tortoises will thrive.