Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Galloping gourmets: What horses like to eat

Horses in the wild seek variety in their diet, consuming as much as fifty different types of forages in a day of grazing. When forage is plentiful, they have preferences in the type of grass/forage they eat, and their nimble lips allow them to strip the leafy part of the plant and leave the stem. What do they like? The most palatable forage is clover or a clover mixture, followed by perennial ryegrass, timothy and cocksfoot ranked behind clover. Tall fescue, crested dogs tail and wild white clover are also well-liked. Red clover, brown top, red fescue and meadow foxtail were tge least palatable. Dandelion, ribgrass and yarrow were palatable herbs.

Only when food is scarce, or in a monoculture (single crop) foraage pasture, horses become less selective out of necessity. Even stalled horses prefer multiple forages, and some experts speculate that finicky horses may be yearning for a taste of something different. Concerned owners such as ourselves may wish to indulge their desire for a new taste sensation. The question is, what flavor do they want?

Baskin Robbins for horses
Researchers have studied flavor preferences of horses, and the results are surprising. In one British study, horses were given these flavor choices: apple, banana, carrot, cherry, coriander, cumin, Echinacea, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, oregano, peppermint, rosemary and turmeric.

The taste test winners are, in this order:
1. Fenugreek (pictured left)
2. Banana
3. Cherry
4. Rosemary
5. Cumin
6. Carrot
7. Peppermint
8. Oregano

On the "so-so" list are garlic, ginger, turmeric and apple (!). Horses responded with a collective "Blech!" to coriander, echinacea, and nutmeg.

Other factors affecting horse food preference include appearance, texture, and even the sound the feed makes while being eaten.

Tapas for horses
Oh, and one more thing: Horses don't like to have their food sitting in in a solitary pile. They like to walk around and nibble -- think of it as horsie tapas or the hors-d'oerves hour. If you can arrange for your horse to walk about while he/she eats (and god love you for even trying), your horse will be even happier with their little feast...

Goodwin, D.; Davidson, H.P.B.; Harris, P. (2005) Selection and acceptance of flavours in concentrate diets for stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95, 223-232, 2005.

Mmmm-Fenugreek! Elaine Pascoe. Practical Horseman, Nov 2006. Vol. 34, Iss. 11; pg. 23.

What's your horse's favorite flavor? from equisearch

Horses prefer to fossick for food from horsetalk.co.nz

Taste preferences in horses from Mitavite.com

Species preferences of grazing horses. Grass and Forage Science,Volume 28 Issue 3, Pages 123 - 128.

Feeding horses bread? A story from Germany


  1. Good topic! And since you brought it up, I wanted to share something I learned about recently. Google "Paddock Paradise" if you already haven't. It's a new concept in horsekeeping (truly new? well that would be something, huh?).

    Instead of a typical sacrifice area, you build a track system by installing another fenceline inside your perimeter fence. Due to the shape, horses naturally want to move around it.

    If you are conscientious enough to lay out hay piles in several locations around the track, the horses push each other from pile to pile, encouraging even more movement.

    Ideally your water, food, salt, and shelter are all in different locations around the track. Then the domestic lifestyle really starts to mimic the wild horse lifestyle of movement.

    Optimally you'll have different types of footing, including gravel which is good for their feet, and hills for them to climb on and old treebranches for them to step over/play with.

    It works best with multiple horses, because they push each other around the track.

    This is a fascinating concept and I'd like to set it up at our new place.

    ~lytha in germany

  2. Wow, thanks! Pasture time is so important, it pays to think of things to keep them in a natural setting or as close as possible.

  3. Very interesting. We have a terrible drought, but I have pasture (frozen but edible) that my horses are grazing on now. When I had them in the yard the other day, I noticed my horse was nibbling (with his prehensile lips) the dead mesquite leaves off the ground. Mesquite "leaves" look rather like frond leaves. When the leaves are green, the horses will reach up and shred them of of their stims. They are rather pungent, like Eucalyptus, although not as strong as that.

  4. Lytha, just read your profile -- tell us about horses eating bread in Germany! It's definitely on topic. Maybe you have posted about it....

  5. Stacey,

    I posted the "bread story" on Dec 2 in my blog. You might like it. As an American, it's hard for me to get information about the strange practices here. You'll see what I mean...

    ~lytha in germany

  6. My trimmer has been recommending the "paddock paradise" system for years. We aren't set up quite that way, but we don't have pristine pasture - we allow a variety of things to grow, and there are trees and bushes (all nontoxic) that provide some interest especially during the winter months.

    We do put hay in tiny piles all over the field they're in so they walk about all day nibbling.

    I also noted that my one gelding seemed to be craving green this month, so I bought a big container of Barleans Greens and have been adding it to all their feed. It has lots of good stuff in it, and they've been licking tubs clean.

    One of these days I'm going to get around to planting my beneficial herb strip where they can graze things w/o trampling.

  7. What a wonderful idea (the herb strip). I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking about outside time and keeping them interested and happy.

    We really love our horses...

  8. Hi Lytha,

    I added your post to the blog entry on foods. If you don't mind I may post to the COTH listserv and pose the same question about bread. To me, soft bread could be a choking risk or colic risk b/c of the texture. Very recently at my barn a horse choked on the soft senior feed, there was a bunch of feed stuck to the roof of his mouth too. Maybe it was a freak thing but it makes me wary of certain textures...

  9. Stacey,

    If you go to COTH, please ask why dried is ok and soft is not. I don't quite get that.

    And today, I've decided to try to find Germany's COTH. Wish me luck.



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