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When observing horses in the pasture or offering different treats, one notices significant differences in their eating behavior. Some horses are “hoovers” and devour everything without much thought.

Others carefully sample and may even spit out certain foods they don’t like, savouring others with pleasure. There are also some very finicky horses that are quite selective and reject many foods outright.

This food selection behaviour can be influenced by various factors. Firstly, a horse’s basic character plays a role. Just as with dogs and humans, some are “greedy” and others are picky eaters. Studies on humans and other mammals have shown that part of this character trait is linked to the intestinal flora. These “co-inhabitants” in the intestine regulate our hormone system, affecting our eating patterns and appetite.

In simpler terms, when our intestinal flora requires energy, we crave sweets. While not yet fully investigated, it’s plausible that similar connections between the intestinal flora, hormone system, and feeding behavior exist in equines.

Therefore, it is plausible to assume that intestinal symbionts also have an impact on their feed selection behaviour.

Moreover, breed-specific traits can also influence eating preferences. Ponies, for example, are generally more voracious than thoroughbreds or warm-blooded horses. While exceptions exist, the reasons behind these breed-specific behaviors are open to speculation and may be related to evolution or human husbandry practices.

Health issues

Tangible health issues can also influence a horse’s food preferences. Horses with gastritis or stomach ulcers are often more selective about their feed, avoiding unfamiliar or intensely flavored foods that might worsen their condition.

Natural behaviour

This behaviour is linked to the natural learning process concerning food. Horses learn about the edibility of plants and how to recognise poisonous plants through life experiences.

If a horse consumes a poisonous plant, it typically won’t instantly die. Instead, it will experience mild poisoning symptoms, like stomach aches or nausea. This leads to the horse learning to avoid similar-tasting plants in the future, recognising them as harmful.

Stomach ulcers

Furthermore, horses with stomach ulcers may associate intensely flavoured feed with their stomach pain (which is often present), leading them to avoid such feed initially and eventually all “unknown” foods in the trough, as they could cause discomfort.

Only hay and grass are usually eaten without problems, though some horses may be picky about the quality. Stalky hay, which is seen as the horse-appropriate kind of hay, is not liked as much as the softer “cow hay”, or possibly the other way around.

Insulin resistance

In contrast, horses with insulin resistance exhibit the opposite behavior, greedily consuming food in the shortest possible time and displaying inventive ways of obtaining even more. Some of these horses will go to great lengths, from opening stall doors to breaking through paddock fences, in their quest for food. The higher the sugar content in the feed (including hay), the more greedily they tend to eat.

Pferde an der Heuraufe
© Adobe Stock/Igor Maz

Their cells no longer respond adequately to insulin, resulting in insufficient sugar intake. As a result, the cells constantly signal a lack of energy to the brain, triggering “hunger”. The more these horses eat, the more the insulin resistance increases and a vicious circle develops from which the horses cannot easily get out on their own. A strict diet is not sufficient to address the issue; the underlying problem must be corrected.


If horses consume mouldy hay, bedding, shavings, sand, excrements or are excessively gnawing on stable structures, it often indicates that they are not being adequately fed with hay. These horses are genuinely hungry. The reaction of most stables is to put rubber mats in their stables or open yards and to cover all wooden structures with metal. But that’s not exactly in the spirit of species-appropriate horse keeping! In such cases, improving roughage management is crucial to rectify this abnormal eating behaviour. Healthy, species-appropriatly fed horses are normally very fussy about feed hygiene and disdain mouldy hay.

It is not eaten out of protest, stirred into the bedding, or pooped on to show the human that the stuff is not edible. Only if no alternative is offered will horses eventually eat spoiled hay out of hunger.

Assuming that the horses are not greedy due to long periods of hunger, they should normally eat replenished hay peacefully and evenly. If they only dig around in the hay, pick out a few stalks, chew on them listlessly, let it fall out of their mouths, or move to other feeding places to search for better hay, it’s necessary to closely examine the quality.

A horse should ideally eat its hay at a normal rate and take breaks during eating. If it fails to do so, underlying metabolic issues like insulin resistance or cryptopyrroluria should be urgently diagnosed. Extremely fussy eating may also indicate stomach ulcers or liver problems.

Energy-rich feeds such as concentrated feeds are usually preferred if a horse is accustomed to them. However, if a horse eats concentrated feed slowly, alternates it with hay, or stops eating it altogether in favour of hay, stomach ulcers may be a concern.

Observe your horse

If a horse has never been given concentrated feed or succulent feed like carrots, it may try them but may eat little or not at all, which is a typical “feral horse behaviour.” Domestic horses learn to prefer high-sugar feeds, such as concentrates and succulent feeds, through our feeding practices.

Observing your horse’s eating behaviour can provide valuable information about its health. Additionally, it aids in selecting the appropriate treat as a reward for training or circus lessons since not every horse’s health will benefit from a starchy “standard treat.”