Understanding Whether a Horse Is a Carnivore, Herbivore or Omnivore

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Is a horse a carnivore herbivore or omnivore? For thousands of years, horses have been man’s trusty companion. They have been used as food, transportation, sport, war vessels, and companions. They are one of the most loved animals due to their usefulness and companionship to man. 

Horses have often been known for their ability to be easy keepers. They can often survive off of just grass or hay. However, some people are unsure about whether a horse is a carnivore, herbivore or omnivore.

Is a Horse a Carnivore Herbivore or Omnivore: Horse’s Diet

A horse’s diet generally consists of hay, grass and concentrates, such as grain. Since horses eat no animal products, they are herbivores.

In addition, horses enjoy many fruits and vegetables as treats, such as carrots, apples, bananas, watermelons and sweet potatoes. Salts and minerals also should be readily available to horses, as they provide important nutrition.

What a Horse Generally Eats in a Day

The size of horse, workload, and age all contribute to how much a horse eats in the day. Most horses eat hay and some form of concentrates a day, such as grain or pelleted feed. Horses on turnout also eat grass throughout the day.

Grass and hay make up the majority of a horse’s diet. Horses generally eat hay and grass all throughout the day. They generally get concentrates one to two times a day, with the amount and type varying with each horse.

Is a Horse a Carnivore Herbivore or Omnivore: Horse’s Diet

Why Horses Eat So Often Throughout the Day

Whether in pasture eating grass or in a stall eating hay, a horse spends a large part of their day eating forages. The gastrointestinal tract in horses is designed to regularly be ingesting small amounts of food all throughout the day.  

Compared to its size, a horse’s stomach is relatively small and can only hold a small amount of food at once.  This is why it is important to feed horses several meals throughout the day, instead of one large meal.

Is a Horse a Carnivore Herbivore or Omnivore: Horse’s Unique Digestive System

Horses are non-ruminant herbivores. That means that horses do not have multi-compartmented stomachs like cattle do. The unique design of their digestive system prevents them from being able to throw up.

Non-ruminant herbivores are designed to consume a high fiber, low starch diets by foraging throughout the day. Horses are also considered to be monogastric, which means they have a single chamber stomach. This unlike other herbivores, such as cows, sheep, goats, and deer, that chew their cud.

A horse’s digestive tract is different because in the foregut it digests parts of its feed enzymatically and in its hindgut, it ferments. The horse’s digestive system can be thought of as two different parts. The first part is similar to that of a human and the second is similar to the rumen of a cow.

Foregut

The first part of a horse’s digestion begins with chewing. A horse will produce 20-80 liters of saliva a day, to aid in the process of digesting. Saliva allows the food to be easily swallowed and protects amino acids in the acidic stomach.

Once the food reaches the stomach, gastric acid helps break down the food. The stomach also digests protein and regulates the food that passes into the small intestine.

Once in the small intestine, more digestion of protein happens, in addition to simple carbohydrates and fats. The small intestine is where most of the nutrition absorption happens. Amino acids, vitamins, minerals, glucose, and fatty acids are spread into the body as they go through the small intestine.

Is a Horse a Carnivore Herbivore or Omnivore: Hindgut

The hindgut, also referred to as the large intestine, includes the cecum and colon. After the food has passed through the small intestine, it moves along to the cecum and colon.

Fermentation creates complex carbohydrates through the assistance of microorganisms. Vitamin K, B amino acids and fatty acids, which provide energy supply, are created by these microorganisms.

The colon works to absorb nutrients and water that comes with food through the digestive tract. If a horse is having problems with its hindgut, it means that the horse is lacking certain key dietary components.

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Colic

Colic refers to abdominal pain in horses. Some of the most common causes for colic are excess gas build up in the colon, dehydration, parasites, excessive intake of sand, stress, changes in diet, blockage in the digestion track and too much grain intake.

Colic can happen to any horse. It is generally mild and can be treated with medication, however, in some cases, surgery is required. Unfortunately, there are times where a horse does not survive colic.

Signs of colic include rolling, laying down, stretching, pawing, kicking, lack of fecal production, lack of interest in food and water, elevated heart rate and sweating. If your horse is showing any signs of colic, you want to notify your vet immediately. While waiting for the vet to arrive, it is a good idea to walk your horse, as this stimulates gut movement and prevents any injuries from excessive rolling.

A balanced diet and constant access to fresh water can help prevent colic in horses. A horse that receives regular exercise will also help its gut health. If you are changing over your horse’s feed, make sure to make the change slowly, as a sudden change in diet can cause a horse to colic.

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A Life of a Herbivore

Since horses are herbivores, their diet largely consists of hay and grass. They regularly eat throughout the day to maintain a healthy diet. Horses also typically eat grain or other concentrates to help meet their dietary needs and they also enjoy many different types of fruits and vegetables as treats.

Horses have a unique digestive system and it is very important for them to maintain a proper diet in order for them to be healthy. If you are unsure of your horse’s dietary needs, you can consult a vet to see what diet best suits your horse. Each horse is unique and will have a different feeding plan based on their age, weight, and exercise.

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