Understanding Whether a Horse Is a Carnivore, Herbivore or Omnivore

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
20 AMAZING HORSE FACTS
20 AMAZING HORSE FACTS

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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FAQs

How do you tell if an animal is a herbivore or carnivore?

It depends on how the animal eats and what their diet is. A herbivore is an animal that eats only plants, while carnivores are usually predators.
Herbivores are an important part of the ecosystem. They can greatly influence the composition of the plant community, the structure of the food web, and the functioning of the ecosystem. Herbivores include horses, cows, goats, sheep, deer, camels, and bison.
Animals that eat mostly other animals are considered carnivores. They include canines (dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals, and the extinct dire wolf), felines (cats, lynxes, and the extinct serval and caracal), and mustelids (weasels, martens, badgers, and otters).

Did horses used to be carnivores?

No, horses developed from an herbivorous ancestor. They were never carnivores as they have no canine teeth. Nevertheless, there are some reports from the history of meat eating horses.
During the years of active exploring new continents, sled dogs were a common way to travel to the South pole. However, some explorers were also using horses. These horses were given meat and fat to eat as there was no grass there to feed them and hay would have taken too much space to carry to the expedition.
The American gelding known as "Freight Train" was reported to have been hunting, killing and consuming small birds in the 50's. He also attacked people a number of times.
Another gruesome report is about the Russian officer, that was killed and eaten by a French mare Lisette during the Napoleonic Campaign.
Nowadays, in Iceland horses are given salted fish as a protein and mineral/salt supplement. This is known as 'torshátur' and is commonly used in the winter months when the pasture is covered with snow and the horses have to spend most of their time indoors. 

Can a horse digest meat?

A horse's digestive system is geared up to process plant matter and not meat. It should be remembered that horses cannot vomit and that moulds and toxins which build up in their digestive systems can be fatal.
However, this does not mean that they cannot digest meat if they were given it by their owners. Some horses will eat meat or fish in addition to grass, but this is a rare occurrence and most horses will not want to eat meat even if offered. The main thing to remember is that a horse needs a balanced diet of hay and grain to be healthy. This includes the whole range of nutrients that a horse needs, from protein, fat and carbohydrates.