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Horses are often called a man’s best partner. From time immemorial, they have been used as a source of food, transport, entertainment, and companionship. They’re extremely popular for being reliable and useful.
Horses aren’t omnivores, but rather herbivores and sustain themselves on a plant-based diet. Omnivores are animals that regularly eat food that includes both plants and animals.
Although they can survive solely on grass, hay, and plants, people still have their confusion about whether they’re herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores.
This article is one in a series I wrote about horses’ dietary needs. The previous article, What do Horses Eat? An Equine Nutrition Guide covers the basics you need to know to feed your horse correctly.
Are horses omnivores, herbivores or carnivores?
There’s one thing common in every animal regardless of their habitat – they need to eat in order to survive.
In every ecosystem, a set of complex relationships exist between different kinds of species. Studies show that some species rely on others as their source of food, and some eat other animals. Some eat plants, and some eat both animals and plants.
These complex relationships make up the food chain.
Horses are not omnivores
Omnivores are the ones who are a little bit of both- herbivorous and carnivorous. They’ve adapted in a way that they can eat both plants and flesh. This is where humans stand, along with bears, pigs, hedgehogs, and more.
Their jaws are equipped with sharp incisors and large canines that help in crushing and breaking down the fibers into digestible form. Their jawline is longer as compared to carnivores.
Most omnivores are stealth hunters, but they can also forge, dig, browse, and gather plant material. Horses are not omnivores but rather herbivores.
Horses are Herbivores
Herbivores have a different jawline than carnivores because they evolved eating only pure, raw plant material. The fibers that they consume are hard to break down to digest easily.
Horses have prominent incisors that help them in grazing. They’re easily able to cut, nip through the gross, or hold on as they pull back at branches of trees. Rabbits, mice, and cattle have different types of incisors that help them eat.
Herbivores animals have some common traits like alertness and the ability to run very fast as it’s their primary way to survive. Their skulls are designed in a way that their eyes are present on either side of the front, which helps them in turning their heads to the sides to get a 360-degree view.
Captive horses are exposed to various environments with humans. They’re bred so that they’re able to run races, pull heavy loads, or jump high and give performances. Some are bred so their meat can be used.
Unlike many other animals, horses rely on plants as their primary source of food. Some videos in the past have gone viral where horses can be seen eating a chick. However, they’re a part of the herbivore family. Their diet usually consists of plant materials.
Because horses are plant-eaters, this also makes horses sit at the bottom of the food chain, making them prey for other animals to hunt. Because they are prey they’ve developed acute vision and communication skills.
Their teeth play an essential role in explaining their diet habits. Animals have different jawlines, and the shape of their skulls and teeth can tell you what dietary habits they’re inclined to.
Horse are not carnivores
Carnivorous or predatory animals have their skulls designed in a way that their eyes are in the front. They also have big canines that make it easier to grip the flesh and cut through it quickly. The sharp-edged incisors help in pulling the meat from the bones.
You can notice these features in cats, both big and small, from lions, tigers to your home cat. Stealth is the way they approach hunting. They follow their prey and get as close to them as possible, and they make a sudden sprint to attack them. They grab them by their claws and with their big teeth.
This stealthy and silent approach helps them catch their prey successfully. A predator’s jaws are created in a manner that gives them a significant advantage when it comes to hunting.
The Horse’s Digestive System
The digestive system of horses is very well equipped at turning grass into energy. The jaw of horses is designed in a way that helps them chew continuously. Twelve incisors are used for cutting plants, and twelve premolars help them in grinding through plant-based matter like stems and leaves.
Horses can also have canine teeth, but they don’t need them. Since canines are mostly used for chewing and tearing flesh, horses aren’t equipped to do that.
A horse digestive system is both ruminant and non-ruminant. Some ruminants like cattle and sheep use bacteria in a chamber before the stomach—the bacteria help in fermenting the plant fiber and breaking down the food for digestion.
A horse’s stomach can hold a small amount and empty it quickly as it passes through their bodies at a rate of about 1 foot per minute. Because of the horse’s digestive system, it could not survive on the diet of omnivores.
How Many Calories Does Your Horse Need?
Horse breeders provide them with alternative sources of energy like grains. The grain helps to give them a boost, which enhances their energy and makes them work harder.
I wrote an in-depth article you may find interesting about feeding grain to horses: Does a Horse Need Grain: Oats, Barley, Both or None? I focus on the benefits and risks.
On average, a typical 1,000 horse needs 15,000 calories a day. A horse that is active and energetic could require even 33,000 calories.
Horses hold a great deal of water and mass that fills up their enormous gut. If they lose this water, this could lead to complications like diarrhea or dehydration.
Horses are created in a way that they’re constantly consuming forage. They cannot handle an empty stomach, and that’s why you’ll always find them chewing.
This can also lead to abdominal pain like sand colic, which happens when the horse ingests sand while grazing in order to relieve their hunger. They may indulge in chewing wood.
Horses can’t vomit
One of the concerning issues with horses is that their digestive system is created in a way that they cannot vomit. This makes it concerning if they were to consume something extremely dangerous and poisonous. They would require immediate medical attention in such extreme cases.
Meats and animal products go bad very quickly, and they have toxins that don’t always get destroyed by cooking. Some of these toxins can be extremely harmful to horses’ health.
One such condition caused by these toxins is botulism. This is a rare and potentially fatal illness if left untreated. These can be contracted via food that could possibly be contaminated with bird or rodent carcasses.
Thus, Plants are Better.
Now you know that a carnivorous and omnivores diet isn’t good for horses. However, they have the ability to process meat and gain energy from it. But their teeth aren’t designed for ripping and tearing meat but rather for grinding to obtain the fiber they need from plants.
Thus, consuming meat once or twice may not hurt them, but it doesn’t mean it is the perfect addition to a horse’s diet.
What kind of foods should horses eat?
Nutrition plays a crucial role in the health of any animal. Herbivores, including horses, have evolved in a way that they can graze continuously throughout the day. But when pasture isn’t available around the year, there are a few alternatives that one can give to their horses.
Grains are meant to supplement hay and prove to be a rich source of vitamins and minerals. The extra calories can help horses with their higher metabolic needs.
Another key ingredient in their diet is water. Did you know an average horse can drink up to 5-10 gallons of freshwater a day?
When it comes to feeding horses, you should not emphasize volume. Instead, you should study and create a strategy that suits their weight. This goes for both hay and grains.
An average horse needs to consume about 2% of its body weight in hay each day. Suppose a horse weighs 1,000 pounds; then, it should consume about 20 pounds of hay in a day.
It can be harvested many times during a typical growing season. The time, environment, conditions, and harvesting process all significantly impact the quality of the hay.
Hay can be cut into squares or round bales. Square bales are often separated into flakes. They’re also common for feeding horses that are kept in a stall.
It is also crucial to store hay properly. If this is not done, it can become moldy. Moldy hay is extremely dangerous and, in some cases, life-threatening for horses.
It can cause severe abdominal pain and discomfort to them. Since horses cannot throw up, this can lead to other major complex problems. Bales of hay are typically divided into flakes.
Not all flakes are created equally, and their thickness can vary. If you want to decide how much you need to feed your horse per day, all you have to do is divide the number of feedings you give during each meal, every day.
When serving them feed, you should allow your horse to enjoy hay first before consuming rich, calorie-dense grains. This will enable the horse to gain the maximum benefits out of the coarse-dense grains.
All horses are unique and have different needs. Light-work horses consuming high-quality hay may not need any grains as those act as a supplement to hay. On the other hand, horses with high metabolism need additional grain to maintain healthy body weight.
Grain can be in either pelleted feed or texturized feed. Texturized feed is also known as sweet feed and consists of a mixture of pellets, oats, and corn.
It is crucial to ration the amount of grain-based on how much your horse requires. Grain portions should be based on your horse’s weight and activity level.
For example, – An active horse may need 6 pounds a day; however, you need to ensure you give a correct measurement to them. Too many or too few grains can have a major impact on their health.
Too much can cause intestinal upset and also lead to severe issues like obesity. If you’re giving your horse too little a quantity of grains, it means you’re depriving them of some essential nutrients that could be beneficial for them.
When should you feed your horse?
One should be mindful of the meal timings for your horse. Consistency is crucial. Small, frequent meals help in recreating the sort of experience a horse will have in nature.
Some people feed horses according to a time that is convenient for them twice a day. However, this may not be fulfilling for them as it would be better to feed them at least three times a day with a gap of 8 hours in between each mealtime.
If you plan to feed them only two times a day, make sure you space it in a way that there’s ample time between the two meals, like 12 hours. Consistent feeding helps horses feel used to the surroundings, and a lack of this could also trigger health issues and stress.
One needs to be very sensitive to horses as you cannot introduce any abrupt dietary changes. You will have to provide ample time for the horse to adapt to these changes.
The herbivorous nature of horses, and them being the pre animal, helps us understand some of their behaviors and traits. They are not omnivores
We can understand that when a horse encounters danger, its steady response is to flee from the situation. They’re equipped with speed and alertness, which helps them avoid risk and understand when facing danger.
Some studies have also shown that prey chooses to live together in groups due to the fear of predators. This is also true for horses and their group called a “herd.”
All in all, horses have evolved in a way that their bodies are suited best for eating plant-based foods. Omnivores have a steady diet of meat and plants, like humans.
However, because horses are herbivores, it doesn’t mean that they cannot eat meat; they can do so and gain energy from it; however, their entire diet cannot be changed to fit meat in it.
Equine digestive systems are incredibly delicate and are best suited for plant matter and not meat. Their jaws are designed to help them grind and break down complex fibers instead of flesh. Since they cannot vomit, toxins from these foods can build in their systems, which could prove to be fatal.
Do you have to feed a horse grain?
No, most horses don’t expend enough energy to justify the extra calories contained in most grain and sweet feeds. Good-quality hay or pasture and sufficient access to clean water supply all the nutrition for pleasure and trail riding horses.
If your horse is in training and working hard, hay may not supply all the calories it needs, and you should supplement its diet with grain, but don’t cut back on forage. They need roughage for healthy digestion. Here is a helpful article on the topic: Does a Horse Need Grain: Oats, Barley, Both or None?
Are giraffes omnivores?
Giraffes are herbivores and mostly feed on leaves, twigs, and fruit. And although they would love to spend time grazing in a lush pasture like a horse, they can’t. Because they’re so tall and have such long necks they’re unable to stay bent over for long periods eating. Eating leaves is much more comfortable and convenient for them.
Will a horse eat a bird?
There are reported cases of wild horses killing and eating birds. For a horse to go to these extreme measures, it must have been in desperate need of calories. It’s dangerous and unnatural for horses to eat meat, including birds, because of their sensitive digestive system; with that said,