What can horses eat?

- Guides and Tips

Horse Eating

Horses are herbivores which means they are designed to eat plants and because plants can be complex to digest, it usually follows that horses have a sophisticated digestive system to in order to access the nutrients and energy in plant matter. But horses cannot eat all plants, some don’t give them the nutritional requirements they need and some are just downright poisonous. And some plants need to be prepared or cooked before they are fed.

The most obvious thing that a horse eats is grass and they just love it.  But grass varies according to the season and for some horses, at certain times of the year, it can just be too rich so they may need to be rationed.  During the winter months when the grass season has finished, horses are fed hay.  Hay is dried grass cut and baled during the previous summer months.  As an alternative to hay, some horses may be fed haylage which is also cut grass but baled when it is wetter than hay.  Haylage has a higher moisture content than hay and also higher levels of energy and protein so it will not be appropriate for all horses.  It also tends to be less dusty than hay.  Very wet baled grass or silage is not suitable to feed to horses and is usually only fed to cattle.

Horses have a tiny stomach and an enormous hind gut and they have evolved to eat almost all the time – and 16 hours out of 24 works for them.  Their intestine is designed to process long fibre and this would be the grass or hay element of their diet.  So essentially, horses need to eat a lot of the time and should have access to a fibre source at all times, even when in the stable.

The teeth of the horse erupt continuously throughout its life and rely on the grinding of fibre to be worn down.  Horses that do not eat almost all the time will certainly develop tooth problems and even those with unlimited access to fibre will need additional dental care to ensure sharp hooks do not develop.

Horses can access their long fibre requirements from grass and hay.  Good grass provides energy but only at certain times of the year.  For horses that are in work or working hard, there will need to be further supplementation of their diet.

A horse can gain energy for work from certain grains such as oats and barley and also from maize.  However, cereals which have traditionally been fed to horses for many years can cause problems for the horse as they do not always digest quickly enough in the stomach before being moved on down the intestine.  This can lead to health problems such as colic or ulcers and also behavioural issues.  So nutritionists are now moving away from the old ways of feeding and looking at providing an energy source for the horse from either fibre or oil.


Horses dislike sour and bitter flavours but love both salty and sweet tastes so they share the human addictive craving for sugar.  Most horses should access their sugar naturally within their diet but as with human food, there has been a tendency in recent years to sugar coat food in order to make it more palatable.  Chops for example – a chop is a mixture of chopped hay and straw used to add fibre to a grain feed and to encourage the horse to chew thoroughly before swallowing – is often sprayed with molasses to make it sweet to taste hence the name, mollichop or mollichaff.  But large quantities of refined sugar are not good for horses.  Adding succulents such apples and carrots to feed, will allow the horse to access something sweet particularly in the winter months when the sugar content in the grass has all but disappeared.

Horse Eating Carrots

Things that horses shouldn’t eat, some of these may surprise you!

Every horse owner will have a funny story about their horse eating something odd or drinking tea from a mug but just because a horse does eat something, it doesn’t mean he necessarily should be allowed to.  Some of the things horses should not eat include:-

·         Bananas, grapes or strawberries. Horses love apples because of the sugar content but should not stray into other choices from the fruit bowl

·         Grass clippings.  This often catches people out as it seems logical to feed lawn clippings if the horse can eat grass and hay.  However, freshly cut grass is hot and will be fermenting and has different constituents to either uncut grass or dried grass.  It can cause colic and should be avoided

·         Buttercup.  Not every plant in the field is horse friendly, far from it and one of the biggest challenges for owners is identifying and removing poisonous or unwanted weeds, flowers and grasses.  Buttercup actually tastes bitter to horses and they will usually avoid it if given the choice.  However, if they do eat buttercup in large quantities, it can digestive upset and burning and irritation of the lips and mouth

·         Wheat.  Horses can eat bran which is the byproduct of the milling process of wheat but not wheat itself.  This is despite the fact that they can be fed oats, barley and maize 

Surprising things that horses can eat

·         Some owners feed parsnips in the winter months in addition to or as an alternative to carrots

·         Some horses enjoy swede and a swede on a rope is a good distraction toy in the winter months for stable kept horses

·         Beer.  Beer or ale was often added to horse feeds in days gone by, not so surprising if you think that it is made from  hops and barley and most horses love the taste

·         Nettles.  Nettles are a known source of minerals for both horses and peoples because their roots reach deep into the earth so they are a great iron source.  Most owners feed them wilted or dry

For a herbivore, horses have a surprisingly limited menu and most are definitely happiest with just good old fashioned grass.