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This question is much discussed within the equestrian community. One camp contends that horses’ evolutionary survival implies they avoid detrimental elements. Others argue that certain feeds taste so appealing that horses indulge despite their health implications. So, who is right?

Learned!

Both perspectives have validity! The majority of domestic horses, akin to their wild counterparts, exhibit an intrinsic aptitude for distinguishing between what benefits them and what they should shun. However, this wisdom isn’t innate; it’s acquired through learning.

On one hand, foals commence their education on edibles from day one by observing their mothers. Numerous horse enthusiasts can vouch for this phenomenon: if a mother frequently nibbles from specific shrubs, her offspring often replicate this behaviour, even if other equines in the group abstain (as they evidently didn’t learn this from their own mothers).

Bay horse in a flower meadow
Foals learn what they can eat by watching others. © Adobe Stock / Rita Kochmarjova

The complexity of the environment where the mother and foal reside influences the youngster’s selectiveness in consuming diverse plants or their components. In instances where the mother and foal inhabit a habitat rich in various species, the young horse typically demonstrates discernment in consuming different plants or parts of them.

Conversely, when the mother only roams a monotonous green meadow, the foal inevitably remains oblivious to the allure of hazelnut bush leaves or the cough-relieving properties of wild thyme.

Furthermore, horses continuously amass knowledge throughout their lives, autonomously discerning which plants are advantageous or inadvisable for consumption.
This learning mechanism is an inherent trait in nearly all mammals: should a horse ingest something disagreeable; it often experiences abdominal discomfort.
This may be accompanied by symptoms of colic, as an excess of most toxic plants triggers such symptoms. Nevertheless, only a handful of poisonous plants are virulent enough to induce severe poisoning symptoms even in small quantities. In the majority of cases, they elicit varying degrees of abdominal pain, queasiness, and potentially circulatory issues. Consequently, the horse’s well-being significantly diminishes following consumption. From this unpalatable experience, the horse learns the lesson to steer clear of plants bearing such undesirable flavours. Thus, they eventually acquire the ability to identify toxic plants within their surroundings and subsequently avoid them.

Constant stomach ache – what now?

This learning behaviour can become particularly problematic in horses with stomach ulcers.
Persistent stomach discomfort leads them to promptly reject unfamiliar or intensely flavoured feeds as a precaution, since such foods might precipitate renewed discomfort. Those tending to “picky eaters” in their stable should thus contemplate the prospect of stomach ulcers as a matter of urgency.

Cheating

However, akin to nearly every instinct, a horse’s innate “taste security” can also be subverted.
This can be accomplished quite effectively in horses through the use of sugar, fats, or essential oils, like peppermint oil.

Even young horses, and now even foals, are introduced to sweet cereals, flavoured or molassed feeds, or succulent feeds containing fructose, such as apples or carrots.
Given that sugar doesn’t immediately trigger stomach discomfort and remains tantalisingly delicious while providing substantial energy, these horses can easily become ensnared in a cycle of sugar addiction. When such horses are subsequently offered feeds that contain incongruous components, yet possess a sweet taste, they’re likely to eat them anyway. This is simply due to the positive conditioning they’ve developed towards sweet feedstuffs.

And how to wean off sugar?

Horses that have become “sugar junkies” often tend to reject pure herbal mixtures or bland, soaked hay cobs, as these lack sweetness.

Experience has proven that a minimum of a year’s commitment to consistent, species-appropriate nutrition (remember, no horse starves in front of the hay bale!) is essential for horses to recalibrate their palates and revert to their natural feeding behaviour.
Remarkably, after this recalibration period, a transformation occurs: herbs and herbal mixtures are meticulously selected and consumed. This resumption of selective eating stems from the horse’s renewed ability to taste and distinguish what is beneficial from what is detrimental.

More on this topic:Sugar in Pasture Grass .


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