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Free Choice Grazing & Harmful Plants

There is a school of thought that, given the choice, horses will ‘self-medicate’ and select what they think they need to improve their current health status. But when you really think about this if horses knew what was ‘good’ for them then by the same logic they surely wouldn’t eat what is ‘bad’ for them.

It is true that many toxic plants are unpalatable, causing animals to avoid eating them. However, there are a great many plants harmful to horses which are actually very palatable. Take Cat’s Ear, Paterson’s Curse, Ragwort or Cape Weed for example, all very palatable, especially when they are young and vegetative. 
Cat’s Ear and Cape Weed cause Stringhalt, Paterson’s Curse will kill and Ragwort damages the liver and spleen with symptoms not evident until anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months after ingestion. As outlined in one of our recent facebook posts, the ingestion of plants like red clover which are high in photodynamic pigments can cause serious photosensitization.

People’s perception of ‘self-medication’ is that of where the horse should be offered a selection of plants so that he can choose ‘what he needs’ to heal any ailments or rectify any imbalances such as a lack of copper for instance. In reality this is not what happens.

Wild equidsOf course horses should have a bio-diverse diet, but since where we keep our domestic horses is nothing like the habitat of feral counterparts this is not easy to achieve. Even when they do have the choice to eat a variety of plants this does not necessarily mean they are selecting them for any particular reason other than they taste good to them.

The conclusion of a study conducted at Massey University in NZ in 2007 regarding the preferences of horses for modern grass strains was that “Horses Prefer Sweet Grass”!
Well ‘kids prefer lollies’! 
Neither did the horses in this study differentiate between endophyte infected strains of the rye-grass and non-endophyte infected strains.

Horses certainly don’t know how, any more than we humans do, to ‘balance their minerals’ by eating – or not eating certain things, this is why so many horses become ‘grass-affected’.
Neither do they exercise ‘self-control’ over the quantity of forage that they eat. They are programmed to graze for 16-18 hours a day. Being confined by fences to small areas means what they have available to graze is short, green, over-grazed grass which often becomes riddled with clover. If the grass available to them is ‘lush’ then they end up ingesting a lot more per mouthful but this does not mean they will eat less mouthfuls.

Short, green grass is by default what most people have available. Under certain conditions it becomes riddled with clover or cat’s ear/cape weed. The chronic consumption of such grass, horse-friendly or not, which is at an unsuitable stage of growth disturbs the horse’s metabolism to the point they start showing some or many of the signs of being grass-affected.

Over the last 12 years we have put into practice all the usual strategies for combating these scenarios. Having a ‘dry lot’ option available which enables you to eliminate the unsuitable short, green grass and replace it with more mature grass fed as hay, turns out to be the best thing you can possibly do for your horse’s ongoing health and longevity. The short, green grass then has the chance to grow into long, mature high fibre, minerally balanced, much more suitable healthier grass that you can safely allow your horse access to for varying time spans to meet his individual requirements.

Implementing such a strategy has a very positive effect on both the enjoyment of your horse and your wallet.
Fortunately a growing number of people who rent grazing or own livery yards who are coming on board with this. There is not much point in renting grazing that causes you no end of trouble.

Once your horse is showing signs of being grass-affected (see Health Checklist at then it is important to understand you are feeding a ‘compromised’ horse not a normal horse. 
They require very plain feeds because they are extra sensitive now to many plants which before would not have caused a problem. Feeds that are fine for horses whose metabolism is still working normally are now not appropriate. You have to take out the items which have been unbalancing their metabolism in order to give it a rest and a chance to get back to normal.

For horses with any of the ‘milder’ signs this is relatively easy but for those who have become over-reactive to the point of being dangerous it is crucial.

For those who have become insulin resistant and easy keepers their appetite regulation is now not normal and you have to be very strict to prevent a laminitis episode and to reverse the ‘metabolic syndrome’.

In our, now vast, experience in restoring horses back to being calm and healthy with proper movement thrown by far the best course of action is to correctly feed the flora in the hind-gut with a constant trickle of coarse, fibrous material, this means mature plants and/or hay should make up the biggest proportion of their daily forage intake.

Zebras Photo by sutirta budiman
Feral Horses Photo by Hans Veth
Over-weight horse on Unsuitable grass Photo by Tim Trad

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