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4 facts, analysed in greater detail.

For years, feeding carrots was as much a part of winter as black ice and cold fingers. Large sacks were collected from the feed dealer or delivered directly, and a few kilos per day per horse were (and still are in many stables) not uncommon. The health aspect, high beta-carotene and vitamin content, along with good taste on the monotonous winter menu, were often emphasized.

However, in some stables, a veritable anti-carrot hysteria is now spreading. Similar to former smokers turning into the most militant non-smokers, some ex-carrot enthusiasts demonize the root vegetable, predicting the worst for the horse’s early demise.

Once again, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. And the dose makes the poison!

Pectin as building material

Carrots mainly consist of pectin, a structural carbohydrate that horses can utilize in the large intestine with the help of resident microorganisms, along with a high water content. Fibre-based feeds are suitable for horses since they derive their energy mainly from fibres rather than easily digestible nutrients like starch found in the small intestine, as in humans. Various fibres in the large intestine are digested by different microorganisms. The one receiving the most feed reproduces best and dictates the gut’s living conditions.

Pectins are primarily consumed by microorganisms favoring an acidic intestinal environment, which they create under favorable feeding conditions. An acidic pH value in the large intestine must be avoided at all costs, as crucial cellulose-degrading microorganisms require a neutral pH environment. If the environment becomes too acidic, these crucial intestinal symbionts die off. In the long term, this not only hinders proper hay utilization by the horse but also increases the risk of diseases such as laminitis, colic, or cryptopyrroluria (KPU).

Small amounts of pectin are naturally present in feed, used by plants as a building material for leaves, blossoms, and similar soft-elastic plant parts. Spring grass is rich in pectin, as the young leaves are composed of this substance. However, once the grass grows out and lignifies, the pectin content drops significantly. In a natural diet, horses have a short phase of very pectin-rich feed in spring and a cellulose-rich, pectin-poor diet for the rest of the time. This ensures that pectin-degrading microorganisms are ‘starved out’ by winter at the latest.

As long as pectin enters the intestine in small quantities or only in short phases, it is absolutely unproblematic and can be well compensated for by the horse. However, excess and prolonged feeding of pectin should be avoided as it can lead to acidification of the large intestine with unpleasant consequences.

In conclusion, an occasional carrot does not harm the intestines of a healthy horse. If a horse is already suffering from intestinal disorders such as FFWS, diarrhoea, colic, flatulence, gas, or similar problems, or if it has a known acidic or dysbiotic intestine (sour-smelling faeces, conspicuous Indikan value), it’s advisable to replace carrots with another reward until the intestine is stable again. Carrots are off-limits for horses suffering from laminitis, as they typically have colonic acidosis.

Beta-carotene and other vitamins

While carrots contribute minimally to mineral supply, they contain several vitamins, notably beta-carotene, the red plant pigment responsible for their color. Depending on the type, the content ranges from 5 to 30mg per 100g of fresh substance. Beta-carotene serves as a precursor for vitamin A in horses and plays a crucial role in the function of the retina, among other things. It is converted from beta-carotene in the small intestine. Beta-carotene also has specific functions in the horse’s metabolism. This way, it plays a role in regulating the mare’s reproductive cycle.

Horses typically obtain vitamin A and beta-carotene from pasture grass. The highest beta-carotene content in pasture grass occurs in spring, stimulating the mare’s cycle for potential covering by the stallion in May or June. In summer and winter, beta-carotene levels in the basic feed drop, causing the cycle to ‘go to sleep’ and preventing foaling in winter. Breeders aiming for winter foals feed their mares beta-carotene to ensure a pronounced heat during winter. For a recreational horse, consider the practicality of the mare remaining in heat throughout the winter.

Nevertheless, horses usually don’t develop a vitamin A deficiency in winter. The fat-soluble vitamin can be stored in fatty tissue, and together with beta-carotene in hay, it is sufficient for the horse during winter. Adding oil to carrots for better beta-carotene utilization is unnecessary. Horses usually have a sufficient amount of oil in their basic feed, with hay typically containing 1-2.5% crude oil, which is enough for vitamin absorption.

In conclusion, regular access to pasture grass in summer (a quarter of an hour of grazing by hand is sufficient already) and a good supply of hay in winter eliminate concerns about beta-carotene deficiency. As a vitamin supply here and there, carrots are ‘nice to have,’ but not necessary and even problematic in large quantities.

Fjord horse gets a carrot
© Adobe Stock / anna608

Sugar content

While the protein (approx. 1%) and fat (approx. 0.25%) content of carrots can be neglected, the sugar content should not be underestimated. In recent decades, cultivating measures have not only optimized the color, shape, and size but also the taste, with a significant increase in sugar content. Anyone who has found and eaten a wild carrot knows it tastes bitter, not sweet.

Our commercially available carrots for the dinner table and feeding trough differ significantly. Due to cultivation optimization for the sugar-loving consumer, they have lost their bitter taste and now taste distinctly sweet. The sugar content ranges from 4.7 to 8%. At 4.7g per 100g of carrot, it may not sound like much at first.

For comparison, one sugar cube has 3g of sugar. But few owners feed their horses just 100g of carrots. Most carrot bags in the supermarket contain 1kg. A bag like this is quickly used up in a day with the horse. If you buy large bags with 10-20kg content from the feed retailer, 2-3kg of carrots may end up in the feed trough to prevent them from going bad before the bag is empty. Here, we’re quickly talking about 47g (for 1kg) or 140g of sugar (3kg of carrots).

With 1 kg of carrots, your horse consumes 16 sugar cubes; with 3 kg, it’s just under 50 sugar cubes. The tradition of offering a sugar cube as a customary reward after work has been frowned upon for years, given that sugar is detrimental to dental health and lacks nutritional value. Instead, however, carrots are generously provided.

Once again we come to the conclusion, it’s the quantity that matters. A carrot here and there does no horse any harm, nor does a sugar cube as a post-work treat. However, if the horse already has equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) or insulin resistance, is prone to laminitis, is an extremely light feeder, or is metabolically sensitive, careful consideration should be given to each piece of carrot.

Hazardous substances

One of the major points of discussion concerning fruits and vegetables always revolves around the exposure to chemical substances from agriculture. There is no doubt that our fruit and vegetable cultivation has been increasingly ‘optimised’ in recent decades, much like the rest of agriculture, aiming for ever higher yields from the same soil and the same animals.

According to a 2009 report by the German magazine Ökotest, all the organic carrots tested were free of residues. In contrast, pesticide residues were detected in all conventional products, albeit always within the legally permitted limits. Primarily, plant protection products are employed here against fungi or rot because, as every horse owner knows, carrots have a tendency to develop brown, rotten, and mouldy patches very quickly, especially when stored in slightly damp conditions.

The analysed nitrate values were also all within the legal range ( According to studies by the German consumer organisation and foundation Stiftung Warentest, organic carrots consistently have lower nitrate levels than their conventional counterparts ( One might be forgiven for believing this, as, according to conversations we have had with vegetable growers, carrot seeds are commonly used in seed tapes that come pre-filled with nitrate fertiliser. Anyone who has ever tried to grow carrots in their own garden or balcony box knows that, without proper nitrate fertilisation, they tend to be rather puny and possess a much more intense flavor than the usual supermarket produce.

So, neither the pesticide nor the nitrate levels in the carrots, as long as they are consumed in moderation, pose a health problem. But if you want to err on the side of caution, it’s better to feed organic carrots. Given the backdrop of pesticide contamination, it’s advisable to avoid products made from carrot peel, as this is typically where residues are most concentrated.

In conclusion, yes, carrots are contaminated, especially with nitrate and various pesticides to combat mould and rot. In small quantities, a healthy horse’s body can easily compensate for these substances, as well as spray residues on straw or grain. For added safety, switch to organic carrots and adhere to feeding only small quantities.

Key Takeaway

Carrots are — not least due to their sweet flavour — a top-notch reward feed that is highly popular with horses. While they may not make a significant contribution to nutrient supply, they are popular as a dietary change or serve as the big reward for particularly good performance. As long as a horse has no pre-existing metabolic diseases and the carrots are given in moderation—say, 2-3 of them (not kilograms!) per day, and perhaps not necessarily every day but rather as a ‘super treat’—you can offer them with a clear conscience.