As herbivorous animals, horses can eat a variety of plant-based foods including fruits and veggies. But not all plant-based foods are safe for horse consumption. In fact, there are many vegetables and even fruit that you should never feed your horse.
Something as apparently innocuous as broccoli or cauliflower can have dire consequences for your horse’s GI tract.
Therefore, as a responsible horse owner it is your duty to educate yourself in the foods horses can and cannot eat.
And to this end, I’ve drawn up a complete list of foods safe for horses, followed by advice on the foods you should avoid feeding your horse, either because they’re toxic foods or because they cause GI upset.
Food for Horses
Whether you’re offering your horse a treat or feeding it on the regular, it’s important to have a clear understanding of their dietary needs.
Horses need constant access to food and water to stay healthy and prevent gastrointestinal issues.
Because of their small stomachs that empty often and fast, horses need to be constantly grazing or eating small amounts of foods to prevent colic and other GI problems.
Horses also need a high calorie intake, so it’s not unusual for a horse to spend as many as 17 hours a day grazing and eating just to meet its calorie requirements.
Here is a complete list of safe foods for horses.
– Pasture Grass
One of the staples of horse nutrition is of course pasture grass. Unfortunately, pasture grass is not available all year round, so in seasons when grass is not available, horses need alternative sources of nutrition.
When pasture grass is unavailable, hay can be a nutritious substitute. Horses will need to be fed around 2% of their body weight in hay daily.
As hay is harvested and stored for later use, you must ensure it’s kept in a dry environment, where it’s not exposed to mold.
– Salt & Minerals
Another important component of a horse’s diet is sodium chloride or table salt. Sodium is needed to maintain fluid balance and hydration in horses.
The average sodium requirement of horses depends on their activity levels. A horse at rest will need around 25 g of sodium per day, while an active horse may require 60-65 g a day.
Horses with a high workload, on the other hand, may require as much as 200 g a day.
Make sure to check the labels of any feed or grains for sodium content as they may already have added sodium.
In addition to sodium, horses will also need minerals such as copper, zinc, manganese, cobalt, iron and iodine in trace amounts.
Commercial horse feeds or ration balancers contain minerals and vitamins needed by your horse in sufficient quantities to meet their requirements.
Horses can also be fed grains including oats, barley, corn, milo, and wheat. If you’re buying grains specially formulated for horses, make sure you follow the dosage recommendations.
Generally, horses should not eat more than 11 pounds of grains per day. Feeding it too many grains will cause colic in your horse.
Therefore, while grains are routinely fed to horses, it’s very important to be mindful of how much grains horses can safely eat in a day.
Horses can eat fruits like apples (without the seeds), bananas, apricots (without the stone), pears (without the seeds), plums (without the stone), mango, melon (without the rind), watermelon, raisins, grapes, oranges, pineapple pieces, and strawberries.
However, fruits should be fed in moderation more as a treat and not as a primary source of food.
Horses will gladly serve some vegetables as well, in moderate amounts and not as a primary food source.
The list of vegetables that are safe for horses include: carrots, celery, cucumbers, lettuce, green beans, pumpkin, and snow peas.
Treats for Horses
When training horses, treats are a great way to practice positive reinforcement and get your horses the reward they so deserve.
I found that giving treats while training my horses helps tremendously in them learning new things.
I also give treats to my horses not necessarily as a positive reinforcement tool, but just to add variety to their diets.
Please note that treats should be given to horses in moderation.
The list of treats that are safe for horses include raisins, sugar cubes, pieces of carrot, pieces of apples, sunflower seeds (with or without shells), peppermints, and commercially available horse treats.
To prevent the risk of choking, it’s best to cut round treats like apples into smaller pieces. Also, when feeding anything with pits or seeds in it, make sure to remove them either because of potential cyanide content in the seed (e.g. apricots) or because they’re a potential choking hazard.
Toxic for Horses
I already mentioned how even if horses are herbivorous and they eat a variety of fruit and vegetables in moderate quantities, not all fruit and vegetables are safe for horses.
Some can cause excess gas production; others are downright toxic to horses.
Here’s the list of foods that are toxic to horses and you should never feed them any of the foods below:
If you have dogs, you already know that chocolate is toxic to them. Unfortunately, chocolate is also toxic to horses and because it can lead to toxicosis, you should never feed chocolate to your horse.
In the same vein, you should also not feed your horse any foods with caffeine in it, because it can cause irregular heartbeats.
Tomatoes are another food that you should keep away from your horse. They’re dangerous to your horse because of their alkaloid content that can cause severe colic in your horse.
– Onions & Garlic
Onions, garlic, chives, scallions, shallots, leek and other similar vegetables are also dangerous to horses. They can disrupt red blood cells and cause anemia.
Another vegetable that you should not feed your horse are potatoes. Green parts of potatoes are known to cause toxicosis in horses.
– Fruit Pits and Seeds
The seeds and pits of many fruits contain cyanide compounds, which ingested in sufficient quantities are toxic not only to horses but even dogs and humans.
Always remove the pits and seeds of fruit before feeding them to your horse.
Cabbages and cabbage-like vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts are also problematic for your horse. Not because of their toxicity, but because of the high amounts of gas they produce, causing gastrointestinal upset.
– Other Foods to Avoid
Besides the obvious offenders, here are some other potentially toxic or problematic foods that you should not feed your horse: rhubarb, meat and meat-based products such as cat food or dog food, avocado, bread, bran, dairy products, houseplants (several of which are toxic to other pets as well).
If you suspect your horse has eaten a potentially toxic food, contact your veterinarian. Since horses cannot vomit because of how their GI tracts have evolved, a vet’s intervention may be necessary to manage the situation.
And a word of advice — when in doubt about feeding something to your horse, always do your research first, so you can avoid potentially life-threatening situations.
How Much do Horses Eat?
Horses burn a lot of calories, somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 calories a day, depending on weight, size, and activity level.
According to the Humane Society, a horse should eat around 1-2% of their body weight in roughage every day.
Pasture grass and hay should be their primary source of food, while grains should be fed in small amounts more often, rather than a large amount all at once.
If using horse feed, make sure it’s high quality and always follow the feeding instructions on the label, so you don’t accidentally overfeed your horse.
It also helps to stick to a feeding schedule or feeding routine to prevent colic episodes.
Can Horses Eat Sugar?
When I listed the treats you can safely feed your horse, I also listed sugar cubes as an acceptable treat you can feed your horse sparingly.
Fruit like apples and strawberries contain fructose, which is also a type of sugar, while molasses is also sugary.
Therefore, while horses can eat sugar, it’s important to maintain a good balance and give your horse sugar only occasionally as a special treat.
Horses with insulin-related issues should not be fed sugar. Sugar should be fed only in moderation, and only to healthy horses.
When not sure whether a food is safe for your horse and you can’t find it in this list or elsewhere, I advise you to err on the side of caution and don’t feed it to your horse.
Make sure that besides the staples of horse nutrition, you also provide constant access to clean and fresh water.
Avoid feeding grains, vegetables, fruit, and sugar in high quantities to your horse to maintain a healthy balance.
And another important advice — don’t allow your horse to go long periods without food. If a horse’s stomach stays empty for too long, it increases the risk of intestinal twisting and colic.Horse Care