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Why Can’t Horses Eat Grass Clippings? Isn’t Hay Cut Grass?

Last updated: July 9, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

My grandson, a budding equestrian, understands one of the golden rules of horse care: never turn out the horses on a freshly cut lawn. He diligently follows this rule, but his curious mind recently raised an insightful question: “Why can’t horses eat cut grass when the hay they love so much is merely dried cut grass?”

His question forms the basis of our exploration today. Freshly cut grass can pose a multitude of health risks to horses. They may gobble it up too quickly without proper chewing, leading to significant health issues. Additionally, cut grass, especially in clumps, can become a breeding ground for harmful mold and bacteria.

However, this doesn’t mean that all cut grass is harmful. When properly dried and baled, cut grass transforms into hay, a safe and nutritious staple in the horse diet. The caveat? Freshly cut grass clippings straight from your lawnmower should always be avoided.

For a deeper understanding of the importance of grass in a horse’s diet, do check out my blog post: Grass For Horses: Why it’s Essential and the Different Types. But for now, let’s gallop ahead to uncover why turning horses out on a freshly cut lawn can be a dangerous misstep.

Picture of my horse grazing.

Why It’s Bad for Horses to Eat Cut Grass.

When horses graze naturally, it’s like they’re at a slow, enjoyable picnic. They pick their favorite grass, tear it off the ground, and take their time chewing before reaching for the next bite. This slow eating is perfect for their bodies to break down and digest the food properly.

But imagine if a horse finds a huge pile of cut grass. It’s like finding an all-you-can-eat buffet. They might gobble it all up super fast without chewing it properly. This can cause trouble in their digestive tract because the food isn’t broken down enough.

Plus, wet grass clippings are kind of like candy to horses. They’re squishy, full of water, and very sweet. Just like kids can’t stop eating candy, horses can’t stop eating this grassy ‘candy.’ And that’s why we need to make sure they don’t get too much of it.

picture of horses grazing on cut grass,

Health conditions that can result from eating lawn clippings

When you cut grass, it’s best to move your horses from their pasture until the grass dries. Paddocks are great places to keep horses off the grass, or you can use a grazing muzzle to control their intake.

Inevitably horses find ways to get where they shouldn’t be, and if your horse eats fresh-cut grass, the following are some of the severe health conditions that can occur.

Colic

Mold is attracted to moist and warm environments. There’s a genuine concern of mold accumulating on clumps of grass clippings that are still wet. If your horse eats moldy grass, it may develop a common but painful gut condition known as colic.

Colic is broadly defined as abdominal pain and has many forms, but one common cause is overeating. Large amounts of grass clippings, especially those that haven’t yet dried, stay undigested in the stomach and begin to ferment. This undigested grass can build up gas which exerts pressure on the gut and causes pain.

picture of a horse feeling bad,

There are several ways to treat a horse with colic, depending on where and how the food got stuck. Diagnosing and managing colic as soon as possible is essential and is a job best done with a vet’s advice.

Treatments may include hydrating the horse using electrolytes supplements, putting it on medications to counter colic symptoms, and even performing surgery if the food is stuck in the intestines. Here’s a summary of how to effectively manage colic in horses.   

Choke

Choke happens when the food gets stuck in the horse’s esophagus (tube connecting the throat to the stomach). It can result in dehydration or infection if the food or any liquid comes in contact with the lungs.

One of the significant causes of choke is ingesting food that hasn’t been chewed properly. If your horse develops choke after eating cut grass, you may notice slight changes in its behavior.

The horse may become uninterested in its feed. It will try to get the stuck food out by either coughing or shaking its neck downwards. Excessive drooling, the release of light mucus from the nostrils, and an abnormal increase in heart rate are also some of the things you should keep an eye out for.

If you suspect that choke has developed, don’t give the horse any feed or water because it may worsen the condition. Treating choke requires special treatment by the vet, who will usually sedate the horse and then ease the esophagus using drugs or deploy a tube through the nostrils.

 Laminitis

Because grass is rich in carbs, excess eating of freshly cut grass can practically cause an overload of sugar. A sugar overload causes a chain reaction in the gut and can result in chronic feet inflammation.

The condition is known as laminitis (founder). It can permanently cripple the horse or prove fatal in severe cases. If you have any suspicion that your horse is at risk of foundering, contact the vet immediately.

Did it start walking strangely, as if walking on needles? Is it suddenly reluctant to eat its feed? Even minor changes like which foot it rests its weight upon or abnormal warmth in the hoofs can indicate laminitis signs.

If your horse has laminitis, your vet will instruct a specific diet for your horse. Initially, you can’t allow your horse to leave its stall or walk around at all. During this time, ensure you keep a thick layer of bedding in your horse’s stall because it will likely lay down a lot.

Many horse owners believe euthanasia is the only choice for foundered horses, but there is a chance for recovery for some horses with time and proper treatment. I recommend reading this article I wrote regarding horse laminitis and how to treat it.

picture of cut grass in a hay field,

Timing it Right: When Can Horses Eat Cut Grass?

My horses love munching on fresh grass clippings after I bush-hog my pastures. But how long do I have to wait until it’s safe for them to eat?

Well, if the sun’s out and your mower spreads the grass out well, it usually dries within a day. But if it’s humid, or the grass is all bunched up, it can take several days. Many things affect drying time, like sunshine, temperature, humidity, and even the type of grass!

Now, I don’t usually have fancy tools to check the moisture in our grass clippings, so we have to use our senses – feel, sight, and even weight. Cut grass should lose about 70-80% of its moisture before it’s safe for horses. When it’s dry enough, it’ll be about 20-30% moisture, which helps stop mold and makes it tough enough for the horses to chew properly.

A good test? Grab a handful of grass and give it a squeeze. If it’s ready, you’ll hardly feel any moisture.

Drying Grass Clippings Faster

When it comes to drying your clippings faster, I’ve learned a few helpful tricks that I want to share with you. These tips are essential for keeping my horses happy with good, dry grass, and I think you’ll find them useful too!

First, it’s crucial to mow your grass when it’s dry. Avoid cutting early in the morning when there’s still dew or right after rain or foggy weather. Wet grass tends to clump together, making it take longer to dry. These clumps can be harmful to your horse and prone to mold and bacteria. Plus, wet grass doesn’t cut as evenly as dry grass.

Another thing to keep in mind is that wet grass can clog the mower chute, making the mowing experience less smooth. So, it’s best to spread out the grass clippings thinly instead of leaving narrow swaths. After mowing, check on your grass a few hours later. If any clumps have formed, break them up. This helps the clippings dry out faster and keeps the grass healthier.

Remember, dry grass clippings are perfect for compost too! So, by following these tips, you can ensure your grass clippings dry faster while preserving their quality and benefiting your garden.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

Can Horses Eat Dry Grass Clippings?

If the grass clippings have dried out and spread thin or given to the horse little by little, it’s usually okay. Unlike fresh-cut grass, dry grass doesn’t bunch up and stick in the horse’s throat or intestines. But remember, even with dry clippings; it’s always best to feed horses slowly and carefully.

Note: My friend, a vet, tells me that she has to deal with horses sick from eating fresh-cut grass pretty regularly. In fact, one study established digestive diseases as the third most common cause of death in horses.

The Importance of Proper Lawn Care

Maintaining a healthy yard involves more than just a good-looking lawn. It’s essential for the overall well-being of your horses too. Proper lawn care, including regular mowing with a lawn mower, ensures that the grass remains at an optimal height for both aesthetic appeal and horse safety.

Understanding Warm Season Grasses

Warm-season grasses are a popular choice for many yards thanks to their ability to thrive in warmer climates and create a beautiful, lush green turf. These grasses, such as Zoysia grass, are well-suited to regions with hot summers and mild winters.

However, when it comes to horse grazing, it’s important to exercise caution with warm-season grasses. While these grasses may be ideal for your yard’s aesthetic and climate, their plant material can contain higher levels of nitrogen compared to other grass types.

Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for plant growth, but excessive intake can be harmful to horses. Consuming grass with elevated nitrogen content can lead to digestive imbalances in horses. It may disrupt the delicate pH balance in their digestive system, potentially resulting in conditions like grass founder or colic.

These digestive issues can be serious and even life-threatening for horses. To ensure the well-being of your horses, it’s crucial to monitor their grazing on warm-season grasses and prevent excessive consumption.

Managing pasture rotation and providing balanced diets that include appropriate amounts of forage and other feed can help regulate the intake of nitrogen-rich grass. Consulting with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist is advisable to establish a feeding plan that suits your horses’ specific needs and mitigates the potential risks associated with warm-season grasses.

Remember, while warm-season grasses offer benefits for your yard, it’s essential to prioritize the health and safety of your horses. By understanding the potential risks and implementing proper management strategies, you can maintain a harmonious balance between your landscape choices and your equine companions’ well-being.

The Organic Approach to Pest Control

For horse owners committed to an organic and pesticide-free approach, pest control becomes an important consideration. Many choose alternative methods to keep pests at bay, such as utilizing natural repellents or encouraging the presence of beneficial insects in their surroundings.

However, when it comes to grass clippings in an organic setting, caution is still necessary. While horses can safely graze on certain types of organic mulch made from plant material, it’s important to exercise care and select appropriate options.

Organic mulch, like wood chips or straw, can provide a safer alternative to grass clippings. These mulch materials not only create a protective layer that helps retain soil moisture and suppress weeds but also enriches the soil with organic matter as they break down over time.

Organic mulch serves as a natural barrier, reducing direct contact between horses and grass clippings. This helps mitigate the potential risks associated with consuming clippings that may contain harmful substances or pose digestive challenges.

By opting for organic mulch and being mindful of the materials used, horse owners can promote a healthier grazing environment while supporting sustainable gardening practices. Remember, consult reputable sources or seek guidance from organic gardening experts to ensure the safety and suitability of specific mulch materials for horse grazing.

By making informed choices, you can embrace an organic approach to pest control while prioritizing the well-being of your horses and fostering a harmonious connection between them and their environment.

The Impact of Grass Clippings on Soil Health

To ensure your horses stay safe and avoid the temptation of eating grass clippings, consider a practical solution that benefits both your equine companions and your garden. After mowing your lawn, take the extra step of raking up the clippings.

Instead of discarding them, repurpose them to enhance the health of your soil and keep your horses away from potentially harmful clippings. By incorporating these grass clippings into your compost pile, you can create nutrient-rich compost that promotes soil fertility.

This sustainable approach not only prevents horses from accessing the clippings but also reduces waste and contributes to the overall well-being of your garden. The clippings compost, once fully decomposed, can be used to enrich the soil in your garden beds, creating a healthier environment for your plants while ensuring your horses are not exposed to potential digestive issues.

Remember, maintaining a safe and enjoyable environment for your horses involves thoughtful practices, including proper disposal of grass clippings. By transforming them into beneficial compost, you not only minimize risks but also nurture your soil and cultivate a thriving garden ecosystem.

Conclusion

In conclusion, understanding the relationship between horses and grass clippings is essential for responsible horse care. While clippings may seem harmless or even tempting to offer as a snack, it’s crucial to prioritize the safety and well-being of our equine friends.

Grass clippings, especially when fresh or wet, can pose various risks to horses. They can be consumed too quickly, leading to digestive issues, or harbor mold and bacteria that can cause severe health problems. It’s important to remember that horses have specific dietary needs and digestive systems that require careful attention.

By being aware of the potential dangers associated with lawn clippings, we can take appropriate measures to keep horses safe. This includes avoiding the practice of turning horses out on freshly cut lawns, raking up clippings, and properly disposing of them. Instead of feeding horses grass clippings, we can explore alternative options such as providing quality hay or pasture grazing.

Furthermore, adopting sustainable practices like composting clippings or utilizing them as organic mulch can benefit the environment and contribute to healthier soil without compromising horse safety.

By prioritizing the health and well-being of our horses and staying informed about proper feeding and pasture management, we can ensure a harmonious relationship between horses and their environment. Consultation with veterinarians, equine nutritionists, and reliable resources is vital in making informed decisions regarding the feeding and care of horses.

Let’s remember that responsible horse care goes beyond aesthetics or convenience. It’s our duty to provide a safe and suitable environment for our equine companions, respecting their unique dietary needs and ensuring their long-term health and happiness.

Below is a YouTube video that discusses horses eating lawn grass clippings versus mowed pastures.

YouTube video

FAQ

What do horses like to eat?

Horses love apples, sugar cubes, and carrots for snacks, but their favorite meal is alfalfa hay in any form, pellets, cubes, or hay. Horses have sensitive digestive systems, so don’t feed them too much sugar.
I wrote an article you may find interesting about horse treats: What Do Horses Like to Eat? 11 of Their Favorite Treats.

Is it ok to let my horse eat moldy hay?

No, it’s not ok to let your horse eat moldy hay, and it could cause severe stomach problems. Moldy hay is dusty and full of harmful bacteria. It’s similar to you or I eating rotten food, but with one big difference, we can vomit and get the bad stuff out of our system.
Horses can’t vomit, so the rotten food stays in their stomach. You can learn more about the harmful effects of horses eating moldy hay in this article: Will Horses Eat Moldy Hay? 7 Essential Facts you may also find this article helpful: Horses Can’t Vomit, Do You Know Why?

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