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Question: “Currently, a lot of leaves are falling from the trees onto our pastures and dry lots. Up until now, I’ve been clearing them once a week. However, I was recently told that leaves are unhealthy for horses, and I should remove them daily. Is that true?”

Every autumn, as the leaves change colour and descend from the trees, many of them end up on pastures and paddocks. What serves as excellent shade providers for horses in the summer transforms into a source of sustenance in the fall. Most horses enthusiastically gather tree leaves as feed. Leaves are part of the normal dietary plan for horses if they have access. They offer valuable fibres for the large intestine and contain high mineral content while being low in sugars, fats, and proteins. Therefore, they provide a valuable supplement, especially for horses prone to carrying too much weight.

Furthermore, the act of “sniffing around” on the ground and foraging for food aligns with natural equine behaviour. Horses are often referred to as “tickle feeders,” constantly moving forward and investigating plants to decide which ones to bite into next. Collecting leaves in the autumn closely mirrors this natural feeding behaviour and seems not only appealing but also enjoyable for horses. In some cases, they even forsake hay to indulge in leaf consumption.

However, when it comes to deciduous trees and bushes, distinctions should be made regarding their impact on equine health. Certain plants have foliage and/or fruits that are harmless or beneficial for horses, such as poplar or alder. Their leaves can be left in the turnout without concern, as they are usually consumed entirely and eagerly embraced by horses as a dietary supplement.

Trees and bushes with more potent therapeutic properties, like hawthorn or willow, can also typically remain accessible to horses—either through the fence or when the leaves fall onto their turnout. Generally, the leaves of such trees or bushes are not overeaten. When planted along the fence, “edible” bushes and trees not only offer effective wind and sun protection but also engage the horses, who readily nibble at any shoots protruding through the fence. Additionally, such natural hedges create important habitats for insects, birds, and other small creatures.

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Then there are certain trees whose foliage and/or fruits can indeed exert a positive effect on metabolism in small quantities but turn toxic when consumed in larger amounts. Examples of such trees include walnut or oak.

When ample hay is consistently available to the horses and there are sufficient feeding stations in the stalls, ensuring that every horse has continuous access to hay as needed, the foliage and fruits of these trees are usually consumed by horses only in limited quantities.

However, horses with metabolic issues, such as faecal water or bloating, might indulge excessively in these trees. This overconsumption can lead to new health complications like colic and laminitis caused by poisoning.

Hence, in such scenarios, it’s essential to be well acquainted with one’s herd and closely monitor the horses over an extended period. If uncertainty persists regarding whether horses might ingest substantial amounts (e.g., if the hay rack empties overnight, causing horses to consume large quantities of less toxic plant parts due to hunger) or when there are frequent alterations within the group and not every horse is known thoroughly, it’s prudent to fence off such trees during vulnerable times and remove fallen leaves and fruit daily while mucking the area.

Additionally, there are trees and bushes that should never find a place in turnout or pasture areas due to their toxicity to horses. Examples include black locust or yew. If feasible, these trees should be entirely absent from the premises (as a horse escaping from a stall or paddock overnight might also encounter them) and certainly not near stables, paddocks, or pastures where horses could nibble on them through the fence.

Whether you should clear fallen leaves from the paddocks daily or allow them to remain depends on the specific types of trees and bushes present around the area, as well as the horses’ feeding behaviour. Many equestrian facilities are increasingly incorporating bushes and trees along paddock perimeters and pastures, serving as shade, windbreaks, and also contributing to ecological considerations, given that hedges serve as crucial habitats.

By making thoughtful selections of plants and ensuring ad libitum access to hay, you can typically leave the fallen leaves for horses to consume. However, if you have trees or bushes that pose a potential risk – either because they are entirely poisonous, such as thuja, or because they produce toxic plant parts at specific times, like maple seeds, seedlings, or beechnuts – it’s advisable to fence them off to prevent horse access. Alternatively, during autumn and winter when trees are pruned and bushes are trimmed, branches and twigs from non-toxic trees and bushes can be provided as engaging nibbling options. When arranged as a dead hedge, these branches and twigs can also serve as a visually appealing enclosure within the paddock, additionally providing habitat for insects and small creatures.