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Will a Horse Eat Itself to Death? Unraveling the Mystery

Published on: May 29, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Horses, known for their hearty appetites, often provoke worry among new owners. A question frequently asked is: Can a horse eat itself to death? Unlike many horse-related myths, there’s a grain of truth to this one.

Horses, indeed, can eat themselves to death. However, it’s not in the way one might think. Their natural tendency to graze continuously isn’t the culprit. Instead, it’s the overconsumption of certain feeds, particularly grain, that can lead to serious health problems. In some cases, these health issues can indeed be life-threatening.

In this article, we’ll examine the truth behind this notion, highlight the dangers related to overeating concentrated feeds, and explain the normal eating patterns of horses. Let’s dispel this myth and deepen our understanding of equine health and behavior together.

Picture of yearling and two year old Thoroughbred horses in a pasture.
Yearling and two year old Thoroughbreds.

Understanding the Eating Habits of Horses

Horses, by nature, are grazing animals. Unlike predators, like lions or wolves, who eat large meals infrequently, horses prefer to munch away at their food throughout the day. They are designed to eat small amounts of food steadily over long periods, primarily consisting of grasses and other vegetation.

This continual grazing is made possible due to their unique digestive system. Horses have a relatively small stomach, capable of holding only about 2-4 gallons at a time. This is in stark contrast to other animals, like cows, whose stomachs can hold up to 25 gallons.

When we think about our own eating habits as humans, we typically have three meals spaced throughout the day. Imagine, instead, eating small portions consistently throughout your waking hours. That’s what it’s like to be a horse!

Another interesting fact about horses eating habits is how they eat. Horses are selective grazers. They don’t just devour any old patch of grass they come across. Instead, they take their time, using their sensitive lips to sort through the grass, picking out the tastiest morsels.

They prefer young; tender grass shoots over older, tougher ones. This selective eating behavior sets them apart from other grazing animals like sheep, who are more indiscriminate eaters. Understanding these natural equine eating habits can help us manage our horses’ diets effectively and avoid health issues that might arise from overconsumption of feeds such as grain.

So, as we journey forward in our quest to debunk myths about horses eating themselves to death, remember – they’re natural-born grazers, not gluttons.

Picture of horses walking to their feed bucket.  It's critical not too overfeed so a horse doesn't eat itself to death.
Horses heading towards their feed.

Can Overeating be Deadly?

When it comes to managing a horse’s diet, overeating, especially concentrated feeds like grain, can become a grave concern. Unlike their natural grazing habits which involve consuming small amounts of forage throughout the day, a sudden intake of large amounts of grain can lead to significant health issues.

Now you might be asking, “Can a horse really eat itself to death?” Well, while it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, the answer is, technically, yes. But it’s not because a horse willingly overeats to the point of endangering its life. More often, it’s an unintentional situation.

For instance, imagine a scenario where a horse gains unrestricted access to its feed. Let’s take a personal experience as an example. One day, my son accidentally left the door to our feed room open. Next thing we knew, we had two horses standing over the feed barrels, feasting away. They certainly didn’t comprehend the potential danger; they just saw an unexpected banquet.

Situations like this can result in the horse consuming more grain than its system can handle, leading to a condition known as colic, which can indeed be life-threatening. So, it’s not the horse’s intentional overeating but rather accidental access to excessive feed that presents a potential risk.

As horse owners or caretakers, understanding these risks and managing our horses’ diets in accordance with their natural grazing habits is crucial. Let’s delve deeper into the health risks associated with overeating and learn how to effectively prevent such scenarios.

Health Risks Associated with Overeating

In the world of equine health, overeating can indeed be a silent threat. A horse indulging in too much grain or lush grass can lead to a multitude of health issues, some potentially life-threatening. Here are the three most common major health risks associated with overeating: colic, laminitis, and obesity.


First on our list is colic. A common term in the horse world, colic is a severe pain in the abdomen that’s associated with the digestive tract’s disturbance. Overeating, particularly grain, can overload a horse’s digestive system, leading to this painful condition. While many cases of colic can be resolved with treatment, severe instances can be fatal.

Laminitis (Founder)

Laminitis is a serious and painful condition that affects the tissues (laminae) connecting the horse’s hoof wall to the underlying bone. Overeating on lush, sugar-rich grass can trigger a systemic inflammatory response that impacts the horse’s feet, which is especially prevalent during the spring months or after heavy rainfall when the sugar content in grass tends to be higher.

Laminitis can indeed lead to severe lameness and, in severe cases, can cause the coffin bone in the hoof to rotate or sink, a state known as “founder.” This progression can have a long-term detrimental effect on a horse’s mobility and quality of life and, in severe cases, can necessitate euthanasia due to the level of pain and distress experienced by the horse.

It’s worth noting that while overconsumption of lush grass can be a common cause, laminitis can also be triggered by other factors such as insulin resistance, certain types of colic, retained placenta in mares after foaling, and severe systemic illness.


Finally, let’s discuss obesity. Just like in humans, obesity in horses can lead to a multitude of health problems. Overeating, coupled with a lack of exercise, can cause a horse to become overweight, increasing the risk of diseases such as insulin resistance, heart disease, and joint problems.

Understanding these health risks associated with overeating emphasizes the importance of appropriate diet management for our equine friends. As we progress, we’ll explore how we can prevent these conditions and ensure our horses remain healthy and happy.

Picture of a mare and her foal. Its possible for her to eat itself to death

Unraveling the Mystery- Can a Horse Eat Itself to Death?

By now, we’ve taken a close look at the potential dangers that can occur when a horse overindulges in grain or lush grass. It’s time to address the crux of the matter: Will a horse intentionally eat itself to death?

In reality, horses are unlikely to eat themselves to death under normal circumstances. Horses, in their natural grazing pattern, know to eat small amounts of food consistently throughout the day. Their instincts guide them towards a diet of mainly grasses and vegetation, not a concentrated feed like grain.

However, as the story shared earlier about the inadvertent feed room feast, horses don’t understand that too much of certain foods can harm them. That’s where we, as horse owners and caretakers, step in. Our role is pivotal in managing their diet and ensuring they don’t get access to excessive amounts of potentially harmful feeds.

It’s up to us to monitor their feeding schedules, provide a balanced diet, and prevent situations that could lead to overeating. We also need to maintain regular veterinary checks to ensure their health and detect any early signs of issues related to overeating.

So, the saying that a horse will eat itself to death is only partially true. It’s not the horse’s intention but rather an outcome of mismanaged feeding or accidental overindulgence that can put their health at risk. As we continue, we’ll delve into practical ways to prevent overeating and maintain your horse’s health.

Healthy Feeding Guidelines for Horses

Armed with a clearer understanding of the risks of horses eating themselves to death, it’s crucial we concentrate on establishing a proper feeding routine for our equine friends. After all, the best defense against overeating and its potential health risks is a well-executed feeding strategy.

First, mirror your horse’s natural diet as closely as possible. This typically means providing a diet rich in high-quality forage, such as grasses and hay. Horses are designed to graze, so allowing them to do so, either on pasture or by providing free access to hay, aligns with their natural feeding behavior.

However, not all horses can fulfill their nutritional needs through forage alone. Working horses or those with specific dietary needs may require supplementary feeds, like grain or commercial horse feeds. Here’s the key, though – these feeds should be given in controlled amounts and divided into multiple small meals throughout the day, not in one or two large meals.

Ensure fresh water is always available. Hydration plays a crucial role in a horse’s digestion and overall health.

Regular exercise is also essential. It helps maintain a healthy weight and aids digestion, reducing the risk of colic and obesity.

Finally, establish a relationship with a trusted veterinary professional who has expertise in equine nutrition. They can provide feeding plans based on your horse’s breed, age, weight, health status, and activity level. Regular health check-ups can also help detect any potential nutrition-related issues early on.

By following these guidelines, you can help ensure your horses’ overall health, minimizing the risk of conditions related to overeating. Remember, as horse owners or caretakers, our role is paramount in safeguarding their health and wellbeing.

Picture of a horse eating hay from a net.


As we’ve journeyed through the myth and reality of whether a horse can eat itself to death, we’ve explored many facets of equine nutrition. We’ve discovered that while horses naturally graze and eat continuously, it’s the overconsumption of certain feeds like grain or lush grass that can lead to severe health problems such as colic, laminitis, and obesity.

Despite the grain of truth in this widely held belief, we’ve learned that it’s not the horse’s intention to overeat to the point of danger. More often, it’s accidental or the result of mismanaged feeding. As horse owners or caretakers, we play a vital role in managing our horses’ diets and ensuring their health and well-being.

By following healthy feeding guidelines and establishing a relationship with a trusted veterinary professional, we can help our horses maintain a balanced diet, preventing the risks associated with overeating.

So next time you hear the question, “Can a horse eat itself to death?” you’ll be well-equipped to answer. Remember, knowledge is the first step towards better care for our equine companions.

Here is a good YouTube video that discusses overfeeding horses

YouTube video


Will horses die if they eat meat?

Horses are herbivores and their digestive systems aren’t equipped to process meat. While eating meat won’t likely cause immediate death, it can lead to serious health issues over time, such as digestive upset or nutrient imbalances. Therefore, a diet of hay, grass, and specialized feeds is recommended for horses.

Can horses die suddenly from colic?

Yes, in rare cases horses can die suddenly from colic, a severe digestive disorder. The condition can cause intense pain, leading to shock or organ failure if not treated promptly. It’s crucial to recognize colic symptoms and seek immediate veterinary assistance to increase chances of recovery.