Last Updated on January 5, 2022
If you are new to the world of horses, it can be difficult to figure out what they can and cannot eat. Many foods could be poisonous to horses, so we need to be careful what we feed them. But how do you know what not to feed a horse?
Figuring out the right diet for your horse can be frustrating. There is a huge range of different foods for horses, and not all of them will be right for every horse. Let’s take a look at the most natural diet for horses and find out what not to feed them.
What Is The Natural Diet For Horses?
Horses have a very complex and sensitive digestive system. They have a very special diet, which is a result of thousands of years of evolution. In the wild, horses still eat a diet that is very similar to our domesticated horses.
Horses belong to a group of animals known as non-ruminant herbivores. Herbivores are animals that eat only plants. A non-ruminant herbivore digests most of its food in its large intestine.
If you watch your horse in the paddock, he will eat slowly for a long period of time. Left to his own devices, he would happily spend at least 12 hours every day grazing! This type of eating is called trickle grazing, and their digestive system is adapted to digest a slow and steady supply of food.
This means that the digestive system of a horse can only process certain foodstuffs. A natural diet for a horse consists entirely of hay, grass, and herbs. These are all easy for the large intestine to process and turn into energy.
However, if you look at your feed store you will see that domesticated horses are fed many other things. Horse feed commonly includes cereals, oils, and byproducts such as beet pulp.
The reason these are fed to domesticated horses is that our pet equines have become quite pampered! They need extra energy to prevent weight loss and to fulfill their work requirements.
So, we have adapted our horses and their diet to meet our modern-day needs. But how do we know what is safe for them to eat? And are there any types of food that could cause health problems?
Let’s take a look!
What Can Horses Not Eat?
As a horse owner, it is vital to provide your equine friend with a healthy, balanced diet. To achieve this you need to ensure that the vast majority of his food intake consists of roughage – hay, alfalfa, grass, and herbs. This should fulfill the bulk of the horses’ energy requirements, in the form of carbohydrates.
If your horse needs extra energy, you might find that roughage is not enough. This particularly applies to horses with high energy requirements, such as those in hard work. Other horses with different energy needs are growing youngstock and geriatric equines.
For extra calories, feed companies may advise that other energy sources can be fed. These include:
- Concentrates – these consist of grains, such as oats, barley, and corn. They are lower in fiber than roughage and higher in energy in the form of carbohydrates and protein. Feed the lowest amount of concentrates possible to fulfill the horse’s energy requirements, split into at least two meals per day.
- Fats and oils – these are commonly fed as an alternative to concentrates. Fats are easy for horses to digest and a good energy source. However, fats should never make up more than 10% of the diet.
- Sugars – this is a highly digestible source of energy but can lead to serious health conditions such as insulin resistance and laminitis. Sugary foods, such as fruits, should only be fed as an occasional treat and never as part of the main diet.
So, while it may be tempting to buy all these fancy bags of food from the feed store, first of all, figure out if your horse actually needs them! Feeding a horse too much of the wrong kind of energy is likely to cause health problems including obesity and recurrent colic.
How Do You Know What Not To Feed Horses?
As well as feeding a balanced diet, some foods must absolutely never be fed to horses. Some of these are poisonous to horses, while others are impossible for a horse to digest.
Here is a list of foods that you should not feed to a horse:
Horses are herbivores, and cannot eat any type of meat. Their digestive system is not adapted to process meat, and cannot digest it. Most horses would refuse to eat meat, as they know it is not good for them!
Brassicas such as cabbages, cauliflowers, and Brussels sprouts will cause excessive gas to be produced in the small intestine. This can lead to colic and is very painful for the horse.
The only dairy product that a horse should ever consume is its mother’s milk as a growing foal! As they become older they struggle to digest any products derived from milk.
Other Fruits & Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables including avocados, potatoes, rhubarb, onions, and garlic are all potentially poisonous to horses.
There are many different plants, trees, herbs, and shrubs that are poisonous to horses. The most common ones include yew, ragwort, nightshades, pokeweed, poison hemlock, and red maple trees. Luckily most horses will steer clear of eating any of these, but you should make sure that none of them are in your paddock!
So, as we have discovered, horses do not have complicated dietary requirements, but there are many things that they cannot eat. You should avoid feeding foods that are high in sugar, fat, or protein, as these can cause health problems. The vital thing to remember is that many plants and trees that are poisonous to horses, such as yew, ragwort, and nightshade.
We’d love to hear about your experiences – does your horse like to eat unusual foods? Or maybe you have questions about the best food for your horse? Add a comment below this post and we’ll get back to you!
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 went
on 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
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN REVN RVN A1