Last Updated on February 21, 2023
Any horse lover will know that these huge animals eat a lot! In fact, they seem to always be hungry, and we need to give them an enormous supply of hay and grass to keep them happy. But how does this compare to how horses used to live, and what do horses eat in the wild?
What Is The Most Natural Food For Horses?
The digestive system of a horse is an incredibly complex and sensitive series of organs. Horses have undergone thousands of years of evolution to enable them to digest a very specialist diet.
Horses are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. The word herbivore means that they feed on plants. The term non-ruminant means that, unlike other grass-eating mammals such as cattle, horses digest most of their food in the large intestine.
All equines are known as trickle grazers – this means they eat slowly for long periods of time. They will graze at foodstuffs known as roughage for many hours. In fact, in their natural environment, a horse will spend at least 12 hours per day grazing!
The food that a horse eats is very specific, as its digestive system is uniquely adapted to process only certain foodstuffs. A horse’s natural diet will consist of roughage – this is hay, grass, and herbs. These are the foods that horses have evolved to eat over many thousands of years.
However, if you look at many domesticated horses and you will find that their owners feed them many other types of food as well! It is not uncommon these days to find one or more of the following included in a horse’s diet:
- Beet Pulp
- Vegetable Oil
So, why are these ingredients fed to horses as well as roughage? Domesticated horses are not as hardy and resilient as wild horses, and often need extra calories to maintain their weight. This is particularly important in horses who are doing high levels of work, as they will not get enough energy from roughage to maintain their body weight.
What Do Horses Eat In The Wild?
If you imagine where horses normally live in the wild, it is a far stretch from the lovely green fields that our domesticated horses graze in! Most wild horses live in hostile and treacherous environments, such as mountains and arid plains. It can be hard to figure out how they survive, so just what do horses eat in the wild?
Well, it is safe to say that wild horses do not have unlimited access to grass and hay! They won’t be tucked into a barn at night with a mix of cereal and alfalfa, and will not have a rug to keep them warm in snowy or wet weather.
You might be surprised to learn that some of the foods that wild horses eat would be shunned by our domesticated horses! The wild horse has a sophisticated palate and can detect which plants are beneficial and which are harmful. Our domesticated horses have lost this ability, and tend to stick to grasses and a few herbs.
Here is a list of the plants that horses will eat in the wild:
As with domesticated horses, wild horses survive by eating mostly grass. However, they are much less fussy when it comes to the grass they eat! Wild horses will eat grass whether it is short or long and will tuck into any grass that is old and dried up with as much enjoyment as lush green grass.
There are dozens of types of wild grasses, and horses will eat most of these. Whereas our horse pastures tend to contain just a few types of grass, a wild horse will eat many different types of grass every day.
Herbs And Other Plants
You might think of these other things that horses eat as weeds, but in the wild horses will eat a wide variety of plants other than grasses! In fact, many of these herbaceous plants are nutritious and very beneficial to the horse.
Wild horses will instinctively know which plants are safe for them to eat. They use their muzzle and tongue to selectively search as they are grazing, picking only the tastiest and most nutritious foods to eat.
Trees And Bushes
In our neat and tidy horse paddocks, it is very rare for your equine friend to have access to a tree to nibble on! Most domesticated horses will stick to eating grass, but their wild counterparts will enjoy chewing on the tender parts of trees and bushes.
During springtime, the first food is often the tender young shoots and leaves of trees, bushes, and shrubs. As with grasses and herbaceous plants, the horse will know which of these are safe and tasty to eat. Wild horses may also chew on the bark and wood of trees for additional nutrition benefits.
In the wild horses may come across fruits that are suitable for them to eat. Most commonly they will eat wild apples, which are normally too sour for humans to heat! Horses however will tuck into them with great enjoyment.
Wild horses will sometimes also eat berries and other fruits. As with other foods, wild horses will instinctively know which ones are safe to eat. Your domesticated horse may well have lost this skill, so it is not advisable to feed him anything you can’t identify, just in case it is poisonous!
So, as we have learned, in the wild horses eat mostly grasses and herbs. The digestive system of a horse is highly adapted to eat a high-roughage diet, and wild horses will thrive by grazing for most of their waking hours. As horse owners, we should aim to keep their diet as close to their wild counterparts as possible.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on what horses eat in the wild. Are you a fan of keeping your horse in the most natural way possible? Or maybe your horse needs extra feed to keep him in good condition? Add your comments below and we’ll get back to you!
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Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then wenton to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their four-legged friends.
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN EVN VN A1 PGCE