Healthcare & Nutrition

Horse Food: The Good, the Weird and the Dangerous*

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Because horses live all over the world, through all periods of history, they eat all sorts of different things. For example, a mustang in the dry Nevada badlands has a different diet than a thoroughbred in a green Kentucky pasture. Somehow, these 1,000-pound creatures seem to survive and thrive no matter where they live.

One thing for certain, the digestive systems of horses are geared to a diet of forages. Forage is a plant material, usually leaves and stems, that horses can slowly eat over a long period of time. Some horses are happy to graze for 16 hours a day! We tend to think of pastures as full of grass, but actually the grass is often mixed with weeds and other plants – some of them good for the horse, some of them bad. And horses often like things that would not normally be thought of as horse food.

Following are some facts about odd things that horses eat and things that can be dangerous for them to eat:

The Good!

Things such as dandelion, thistle (not Russian Knapweed or yellow star thistle), sunflowers and their seeds, peanut plants, raspberry/blackberry bushes, wood and bark of most trees (except black walnut or locust) may be found in horse pastures and are safe to eat.

Cabbage, broccoli, kale, chard, collard greens, brussel sprouts, spinach, rhubarb stems (not the leaves or roots), garlic and onions, turnips, radishes, avocado (not skins or seeds), lathyrus species of beans (India), sunflower seeds, sugar candies such as jelly beans, gummy bears, peppermints, are okay to feed to horses, if fed in small amounts of less than 4 ounces per day.

The Weird!

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Carrots, apples, grapes, bananas, peas, green beans, lettuce, celery, cooked dried beans, watermelon rinds, squash, mangoes (not the seeds), raisins, bread/bagels/cake (not if they contain chocolate or poppy seeds), pasta, macaroni, potato chips and potato products, rice products (not raw rice), barley products, corn products, dairy products, eggs, fruit juices, sandwiches (hot dogs, hamburgers, tuna fish, ham, roast beef), most dog and cat foods are all good treats for horses, if fed in limited quantities of less than two pounds per feeding.

The Dangerous!

Buttercups, morning glory, pokeweed, St. Johnswort, gum-weed, vetches and locoweed, avocado leaves, bracken fern, tulips and most other bulb type flowers, wilted red maple leaves, acorns and new oak leaves are dangerous, if eaten in large quantities.

Many common plants found around the house or garden are poisonous to horses. These include: lily of the valley, larkspur, tomato or potato plants, rhubarb leaves and roots, poison hemlock, foxglove, leafy spurge, mustards, jimsonweed, alsike clover, blue flax, sorghum, oleander, privet, Japanese Yew, azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel, pits of peaches, cherries, or avocados; horse chestnut, Russian knapweed or yellow star thistle.

Feeding the Four-Legged Athlete*

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All horses need water, energy, fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals to live. But an athletic horse -- one that races, for example – usually needs more of everything, and in the right measures.

An athletic horse is one that trains more than five days a week, for an hour or more a day. The energy the horse gets comes mainly from eating carbohydrate and fat in its food. The energy is transported in the blood in the form of a sugar called glucose and is used directly by the muscles. Or the energy can be stored as fat and used later – much like electricity is stored by a battery.

High quality grass and hay are important for athletic horses. Fresh green grasses have a lot of carbohydrate, and new hay can give a horse more energy than older hay. Water is important because horses are the only animals that sweat, besides humans. And when they sweat, they lose chemicals called electrolytes (elek-tro-lites), which help to make muscles work, including the heart. Sodium and chloride are two important electrolytes – the same chemicals that make up plain salt. Horses need small amounts of electrolytes while they exercise, as well as plenty of water.

An athletic horse is likely to need extra B vitamins, usually through food, because those are lost through sweating, but most other vitamins are not necessarily lost through exercise. Knowing the condition of the athletic horse is really in the “eye of the owner,” meaning, if you know your horse, you’ll come to know when to adjust food amounts or types to keep it in top shape.

Feeding the Older Horse*

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The average horse lives about 25 years; the oldest on record lived to be 62. But just because a horse is old in years, doesn’t mean you have to treat it any differently. If a horse is in good body condition, healthy and active at any age, there’s no need to change its food or routines.

But, just like humans, there may come a time when an older horse starts losing weight or starts showing problems with internal organs. Often, food can make a difference.

One of the first things to check is the horse’s teeth. Sometimes, molars can form sharp points that make it painful to chew food. If molars are missing, the horse won’t be able to grind up dry hay, so it might be necessary to make “soups” of soaked hay cubes or use beet pulp. There are also special feeds designed for older horses. Front teeth are a whole different story. A horse can’t graze in a pasture without front teeth. A horse without front teeth may need to eat loose hay and/or hay cubes.

An older horse may also develop problems with glands, like the pituitary and thyroid, and organs, like the kidneys and liver. These problems can sometimes be helped by adjusting the horse’s vitamins and minerals, and sometimes, how much sugar it receives in its diet. Work with your veterinarian and scientists at the Equine Science Center to determine what’s best for your senior citizen!