Health And Welfare Benefits Of A Varied Diet For Horses

Written by Justine Harrison, CHBC

The New Forest pony is a native breed of the British Isles. Many of them are domestic horses that are ridden and worked, but free to roam and graze across a large area of “common” land, which has a varied terrain with a diverse range of plants and trees.

Horses have evolved to survive by eating poor quality grass or shrubs. However, given the opportunity they do eat a huge variety of flora, and this would include browsing and nibbling on tree bark and branches as this film shows.

Up to 10 percent of their natural diet may consist of bark, branches, and tough shrubs like thistles, gorse or even holly—providing essential woody fibre. If horses don’t have access to this, they may understandably resort to eating wooden fencing and stall doors.

A large horse may eat up to three-and-a-half tons of forage in dry weight annually. Forage is the most important part of the horse’s diet, and they must have constant access so they can keep trickle-feeding long fibre through their digestive system to maintain healthy gut function.

Restricting forage intake can affect a horse both mentally and physically. Horses would naturally graze for up to 18 hours a day, so being without access to forage for even short periods of time can lead to frustration as well as increasing the risk of aggressive behaviour and developing gastric ulcers.

Many horse owners incorrectly assume that feeding their horse one type of forage— for example, hay or alfalfa—once or twice a day, with a couple of grain feeds, will meet their basic needs and is sufficient for them to thrive. In fact, we should be aiming for our horses to have constant access to a variety of grasses, herbs, and shrubs: This is vital for both their physical health and to meet their behavioural needs.

Providing plenty of good quality forage will keep your horse occupied and his digestive system working as it should. Ideally, give him a choice of different forages at ground level to simulate natural grazing behaviour. As long as he doesn’t have back or neck pain, you could put some in hay nets hung at different heights and positions in the stable or paddock—this will encourage him to change positions and provide some interest and variety.

What can you do to improve your horse’s diet?

  • Ensure your horse has access to plenty of good quality forage and/or pasture 24/7
  • Give your horse a choice by feeding him a variety of forages, suitable herbs, and shrubs in different bowls or nets.
  • Provide horse-safe logs and suitable branches—such as willow or hazel—around the stable and field for your horse to browse on. Check they are not poisonous first.
  • Short chopped forages or chaff take longer to eat and will fill his time. Feed a variety every day in different bowls.
  • Avoid giving sugary or grain-based feeds; studies have shown they can raise anxiety levels and can quickly cause weight gain in the stabled horse.
  • Watch out for the sugar content in some licks and treats and opt for sugar-free alternatives.
  • Provide loose salt and fresh water at all times.
  • Provide turnout—ideally 24/7 with other horses.
  • If adequate turnout is not available due to bad weather, ensure your horse receives enough exercise and has the opportunity to socialise with others every day.

Justine Harrison is an IAABC certified horse behaviour consultant and trainer based in the North West of England. She is also a member of the IAABC application review committee. Justine is the behaviour expert for Horse magazine in the UK and regularly contributes to a number of international publications.