Sometimes it’s very easy to tell what an animal eats. Take big cats for example, they are large animals with long, sharp teeth, forward facing eyes, and strong claws. For a terrestrial animal, that practically screams that this animal is a carnivore and eats other animals.
Even if you look at a herbivore like a deer, then there are signs that it only eats plants: eyes on either side of its head and long slender legs for running.
However, the further away from stereotypical features of these two dietary types, the harder it gets to classify them. Take the Sally Light foot crab, it is part of a family that is primarily omnivorous and has features to match that lifestyle, but this crab is entirely herbivorous in nature.
This affects larger mammals as well, as the larger you are, the less likely you are to need adaptations to deal with predatory animals.
So, with that in mind, where do horse’s stand? Are they herbivorous, carnivorous, or somewhere in between? In this article, we seek to discuss a horse’s diet and tell you exactly what a horse likes to eat.
What Do Horses Eat?
So, to answer the question of today off the bat, horses are herbivores. This means that they only eat plant matter and do not consume meat at all. In fact, most of their diet is made up of grasses, if they are feral or wild horses, and hay, if they are domesticated.
This kind of diet can cause issues for horses, as they can be insulin resistant. This means that they can have a hard time digesting sugar, which is a problem as grasses can contain quite a lot of sugar.
In the wild, this isn’t such a big issue, as grass’s sugar content changes depending on the season and the area, meaning that normally it is low enough for horses to digest it with no issues.
However, in domestic populations the grasses in pastures are always kept high and healthy, meaning that they have much more sugar in them.
Owners of horses may want to limit time spent grazing in the pasture or limit time spent there to certain times of the year when the sugar content will be lower.
Hay too can have a lot of sugar in it, so if your horse is sensitive to sugar, be careful and pick hay that comes from the right time of the year. You shouldn’t dismiss hay immediately as a food source, though, as it forms the cornerstone of a domestic horse’s diet.
The other food that domestic horses feed on regularly is grain, though not to the extent of grass or hay. Grain is a great thing to feed your horse and can provide a large amount of calories that you just wouldn’t get eating grass.
Apart from the staples, you can also feed your horse treats as well. These can be in the form of fruits and vegetables. Yet, you should be careful, as a lot of fruits and vegetables horses can’t eat.
This is because of the high sugar content of some fruits, and that some fruits and vegetables are poisonous to horses. It is best to check with your vet what your horse can eat or look online for a definitive list, before feeding them.
Do Horses Ever Eat Meat?
The only time a horse would willingly eat meat is if they were unaware that it was meat they were eating. Horses are not omnivores, and they are not like some herbivores that will supplement a 95% herbivorous diet with the occasional insect, like squirrels. Horses don’t eat meat, plain and simple.
Even if they were partial to eating a steak or some other form of meat, they simply would not be able to. This is because horses have adapted to a specific diet, and they actually have quite delicate guts.
See, a horse is not like a ruminant, like cows or deer, they do not have special stomachs to aid with digestion.
Instead, horses have one stomach like a human, but they have an insanely long intestinal tract. The small intestine can be up to 21 meters, the cecum (first part of the large intestine) can be up to 1.2 meters, and the rest of the large intestine can be up to 3.7 meters.
Including all other parts of the digestive system, then in total a horse’s digestive tract can be up 30 meters in length.
The reason for the length is that horses are hindgut fermenters. This means that they digest cellulose in their stomach and ferment everything else in their digestive tract for a very long time.
This allows the horse to extract every single ounce of nutrition from low quality food, such as grasses, over a period of days.
It may seem inefficient, but actually it’s a great adaptation to survive difficult environments. If you eat a large amount of food in one go, then you are full but that food and its calories is quickly gone from your body, and you must find more in a short amount of time.
With hind gut fermentation, you just need to eat low quality, readily available food in small amounts routinely, and your body will constantly draw nutrients out of it.
Even if you stop eating, your body will be drawing nutrients out of the food you ate earlier over a long period of time. This allows horses to survive in deserts and semi-arid areas where only low-quality food is available in abundance.
How Much Do Horses Eat?
I don’t think I’d be overstating if I said horses eat so much food. In fact, I may be understating it slightly. With their food source being nutrient poor and them being hindgut fermenters who need to constantly eat, they can chow down on kilos of food at a time.
A horse should realistically eat 1.5 to 3% of their body weight in a day. Now, if you want a more concrete number, then we can look at what an average horse weighs. So, a horse weighs on average 1000 pounds or around 450 kilograms.
This means that the maximum a horse eats per day is around 30 pounds or 13 kilograms worth of food every day.
To put that into perspective, a person will eat about 3 pounds of food per day, so 10 times what you eat per day and that is just for the average horse. Horses that are bigger, like shire horses, will eat more food and if they are working horses or regularly exercise, they need more food as well.
Horses are herbivores. They have adapted to a diet based on the habitats their ancestors lived in, which was grasslands and semi-arid areas where the only abundant food was low nutrient grasses.
While it may not seem like an ideal food source for us – and it isn’t – we should feel some measure of respect for the fact that horses thrive off it.
They have adapted to fairly barren landscapes where other creatures struggle to survive, and have managed to thrive by adapting and changing in ways that others didn’t.
This ecology niche they have found themselves in has given them great success, and it’s a marvel that they managed to make it work at all.