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What can a horse NOT eat? Top 5 things to avoid feeding your horse

There have been a few topical articles n the horsey press recently about people feeding horses foods that horses should not eat. 

As the worldwide lockdown has forced people into quarantine in their homes, many are turning to green spaces to exercise, locations which they wouldn’t usually visit.  Feeding a friendly horse over a fence might seem harmless enough but some people are feeding items that horses really should not eat.

It’s even easier for horse owners if they don’t have a lot of knowledge and experience to end up feeding horses the wrong thing particularly if it is similar to something they normally eat. 

Here are the top 5 things which are often mistakenly thought to be acceptable as part of the horse’s diet.


potatoes 1 These are actually not too much of a culprit unless they are rotten, green or mouldy when they are toxic.  But the biggest problem with potatoes is their shape.  A small potato can cause choke, becoming lodged in the horse’s oesophagus – they are just about the right size and dimension.  Because horses eat carrots and parsnips, it’s not so much of a quantum leap to assume they could also eat potatoes.  Not.  If you buy carrot nets for your horse, do be careful as sometimes  a rogue potato can find it way in by mistake when the vegetables are being sorted and packed



brassicas 1 

So cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, again a common mistake to make if you are short of carrots and rootling through the vegetable drawer in your kitchen.  And they are green, after all.  And horses eat green things don’t they – well, not all the time.  The main problem with these Brassicas is that they will cause a build up of gas so you could end up with a spasmodic colic on your hands if your horse has a lot of them.


Lawn Clippings

lawnclippings 1 

A top favourite because it is grass and horses eat grass but horses absolutely must not eat lawn clippings.  Freshly mown grass is chopped up into fine pieces so the horse will barely chew them, swallowing them whole.  Fresh cut grass clippings are also fermenting which is why they feel warm if you put your hand into them.  So you have fermenting, barely chewed grass arriving in the stomach; grass does ferment within horses as but not until it reaches the hind gut much further along the digestive tract.  The stomach is not designed to cope with the process of fermentation and so will expand and can rupture.  Grass clippings can also cause problems further down the line, again because of the amount of gas they will create, better in the hind gut than the stomach but better not at all


fruits 1 

sounds obvious because apples are suitable but best only in small quantities so just as an occasional treat.  Horses should not eat berries, grapes or any of the persimmon fruits.  Some people do however feed them whole bananas, with the skin on.


chocolate 1 

Chocolate is a double problem because firstly, it contains the chemical, theobromine, which is toxic to horses.  It can also show up positive on a drugs test for competition horses.  The other issue is the dairy element of chocolate.  Horses are lactose intolerant so too much chocolate will upset their gut function as will other dairy products such as cheese and ice-cream

What should you do if your horse has been fed something it really should not have eaten?

Unless the horse is choking then if the quantity is small, it is best to speak to your vet and keep the horse under close observation for the next 24-48 hours.  

Gut transit time is pretty fast so you will know quite quickly if the horse is uncomfortable or in pain.  Your vet can help you manage a grumbling gut or minor intestinal spasms usually by administering Buscopan via injection which helps calm a turbulent gut and reduce the pain until the gut calms down and returns to normal.  Horses in a lot of abdominal discomfort can end up injuring themselves if you don’t take steps to make them more comfortable.

A high sugar/starch overload will probably also cause colic and laminitis in predisposed types, like native ponies and horses with Equine Cushing’s Disease.  This does not have to be chocolate, it could be breaking into the grain store and overdosing on wheat grain or oats or barley.  Wheat cannot be fed to horses but oats and barley can – in this situation it is the quantity that causes the problem.  Or gorging on apples which is easily done in a windfall orchard.  A horse with a belly full of apples will be prone to a gas colic because of the fermentation and also possibly laminitis due to the starch/sugar overload.

What should you do if your horse has choke?

A horse which has choke will quickly become a veterinary emergency if it cannot clear the blockage within a few minutes.  The horse has a separate airway (windpipe) to the food tube or oesophagus so he can still continue to breathe but he cannot swallow.  A horse with an obstruction in his gullet will quickly become very distressed.  They are easy to spot, standing with their neck extended, trying to shift the blockage and repeatedly swallowing.  They may also make a funny noise and drool or play with water in the water bucket.

Your vet will sedate the horse which promotes relaxation and often this reduction in muscle spasm in the oesophagus is enough to let the obstruction pass.  If it isn’t then a nasogastric tube or stomach tube is inserted to via the nostrils and down into the oesophagus to help shift the culprit.

Horses are herbivores and are quite happy on a diet of only one thing, grass.  They don’t get bored and so offering unusual treats or feeling they need loads of variety is a human impulse that could lead you onto doing the wrong thing and feeding something the horse definitely should not eat.

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