16 Sep Do Horses Eat Meat? (The Answer Might Surprise You)
Are Horses Omnivores?
Recently, videos of horses eating baby chickens have gone viral on the internet. As someone who has owned horses for 12+ years, I suddenly found myself questioning why a horse would do this and if horses are actually omnivores. I started researching, and I thought I would report my findings on Equine Helper.
Do horses eat meat? While there may be rare instances of horses eating meat or other animals, the equine species are not omnivores. Horses are herbivores, meaning that their bodily systems were created to specifically process plants. Adding other non-plant substances to a horse’s diet puts them at risk of certain health problems.
You may be asking yourself, if horses are herbivores, then why did those horses in the videos eat the baby chickens? It’s important to know why horses display certain behaviors. In this article, I’ll share more about the horse’s digestive system, a healthy horse diet, and why those horses ate those chickens.
Why Horses Will Eat Chickens?
So, why would a herbivore, like a horse, decide to eat meat? In the notorious video, it wasn’t like the chicken accidentally got in the way as a horse took a bite of hay. No, the horse actively watched the chicken and decided to eat it… and the horse definitely chewed and swallowed. (sorry) So, why would a horse exhibit this behavior?
Horses are curious creatures that like to inspect things with their nose and mouth. If shown a new object, the first thing my horse will do is sniff it, bop it with his nose, and then try to nibble at it. If my horse meets a new animal like a cat or a dog, he usually bops them with his nose and takes a nibble at their fur.
If you have a particularly curious horse, a little curiosity nibble may turn into a mouthful. One time, my horse was being very curious of a cat, and before I could stop him, he picked the cat up by the tail. (Don’t worry, the cat got a really good hiss and scratch in.)
Just because a horse eats something doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be eating it. Just because a dog would eat chocolate doesn’t mean that it should. Like any animal, horses tend to lack a sense of what they should and shouldn’t eat. They will often eat things just out of curiosity or circumstance. Not every horse is like this, but I’ve met quite a few that will veg out on anything in front of them.
Horses need mental stimulation just like humans do. One thing I did notice about the horses in the numerous videos of horses eating chickens is that they all seemed to be out in a paddock by themselves. Horses are herd animals and need the company of other horses to feel security and mental stimulation.
If a horse is lacking in mental stimulation, they may do things that aren’t normal horse behaviors…like eating chickens. A lack of mental stimulation can lead to horses being overly enthusiastic and even aggressive when they are finally given this attention.
Having a hard time telling if your horse is bored? Check out my article How to Tell if Your Horse is Bored.
Horses are big animals and require a lot of resources to stay healthy. The average horse will graze for 17 hours a day and eat as much as 20 lbs of forage in that timespan! The good news is that quality forage can usually be enough to sustain your horse’s diet.
If you notice your horse eating things they shouldn’t eat, like chickens, dirt, or even their own poop, it’s a good sign that they have a diet deficiency. Meat is high in protein, so if you see your horse eating chickens or other meat sources, it could mean that your horse lacks protein.
The good news is it is easy to provide your horse with extra protein if they are deficient in this area. You can supplement their diet with specialized grain or even alfalfa hay.
To learn more about diet deficiencies in horses, visit my article Why Horses Eat Dirt: Essential Behavior Guide.
How a Horse’s Digestive System Works
Eating meat can be harmful to a horse’s digestive system and could lead to the horse experiencing very serious health conditions.
How A Horse’s Teeth Work:
How a horse’s teeth grind up food will impact how well the horse can digest that food later. If you look at a horse’s teeth, you’ll notice that the tops of the teeth are flat. If you watch a horse chew, its jaw works circularly, the bottom teeth grinding against the top teeth.
All herbivores will have similar teeth structure and chewing habits. The reason for this is that these aspects enable the horse to break down the grass or forage as much as possible before it passes to the digestive system.
Carnivores, on the other hand, have pointy teeth with jagged ridges designed for ripping food and flesh. While herbivores can get their food down to a pulp before it’s swallowed, carnivores are more likely to swallow bigger chunks of food.
How Food is Digested in a Horse’s Body:
The next step in the process is the digestive system. By this point, a horse has chewed up their grass or forage into an easily digestible substance. A herbivore’s digestive system is designed to extract as many nutrients, proteins, fibers, and sugars as possible from the plant matter that has been eaten.
Vice versa, a carnivore’s digestive system is designed to break down larger chunks of food. While it may have an easier time breaking down meats and animal matter, it will have a harder time breaking down plant matter. (have you ever seen the aftermath of a salad?)
Another point to note is that horses need to be constantly eating to produce the energy they need. Naturally, due to their prey animal nature, horses are much more alert throughout their day. On the other hand, carnivores eat less frequently and spend a large chunk of time sleeping. They don’t need as much energy to get through their day.
How Long Does it Take a Horse to Digest Food?
It takes a horse around 24 hours to digest food, while it takes a dog only 4 – 8 hours. The reason for this is, again, the digestive system of a horse will break down food as thoroughly as it can to extract as many nutrients as possible.
If a horse has eaten something it shouldn’t, if it’s eaten too much of a certain material, or if it hasn’t effectively chewed its food, the digestive process can be slowed down. This, in turn, can lead to a build-up of gas or stomach discomfort for the horse. Believe it or not, this can even lead to fatal health conditions, like colic. For this reason, it is essential to monitor your horse’s diet and eating habits to ensure they aren’t eating things they shouldn’t…like meat.
A Healthy Horse Diet
We’ve talked about how fragile a horse’s digestive system is; so, what is the best diet for horses? As herbivores, the majority of a horse’s sustenance should come from forage, like grass and hay. Depending on the animal, a horse can eat anywhere from 1-2% of its body weight in forage a day; this averages out to be around 15-20 lbs a day!
Ideally, horses would eat natural grasses with low sugar content; however, most of the grasses you find in your pasture are not natural and tend to be high in sugar. Excessive amounts of sugar can negatively affect a horse, just like it would a person. Closely monitor your horse’s weight to determine if it may need to be put on a diet with limited grass or hay with less sugar content.
Horses should have access to forage 24/7 to maintain a healthy digestive system. A horse’s digestive system is designed to be working constantly to break down foods. If a horse goes a long time without eating and digesting, it can negatively affect the horse’s health.
Should I Feed My Horse Grain?
While meat is definitely a no-no when it comes to feeding a horse, you may be wondering about grain. If horses are primarily designed to eat forage, how would grain affect their diet? Depending on your horse’s dietary needs should determine whether or not you feed your horse grain. Grain should be used to supplement a horse’s diet, not act as the main source of sustenance.
Many people will feed grain to their horses without really knowing what’s in the grain and if it really benefits the horse’s diet. Certain grains can contain a lot of artificial sugar and do nothing to improve your horse’s health.
Grain should be used to supplement your horse’s diet with things it is otherwise missing. If you have a horse that keeps its weight easily on grass and gets worked a few times a week, chances are you don’t need to feed it grain. If you have a horse that is worked hard and regularly competes, adding grain that increases energy output may be a good option.
Likewise, if you have a horse that is having a hard time gaining weight or muscle, grain can be used to add extra protein to their diet. Since grain isn’t as natural of a substance for horses to eat, it’s best to feed lesser amounts of grain multiple times a day instead of a large amount of grain once a day.
Horses shouldn’t eat meat. What other things should horses not eat? To learn more, visit my article The Ultimate Guide to What Horses Can (and Can’t) Eat.
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.