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Before you instantly reject the concept, hear me out. While horses are 100% vegetarian, they do eat animal products from time to time, and on rare occasions, even meat.
Horses do not normally eat meat. Their digestive systems evolved to accommodate a high-fiber diet made up of grass and other plants. However, horses can safely eat meat in small quantities.
There have been several instances where horses have been fed meat and fish as a source of extra protein. However, this doesn’t mean that meat is good for them in all circumstances and it shouldn’t normally be offered to horses.
Are Horses Herbivores or Omnivores?
Horses are naturally herbivorous animals, meaning their diet is plant-based. However, there have been instances where horses acted like omnivores by opportunistically eating meat.
Every part of the horse has adapted to the herbivorous lifestyle throughout the course of evolution. If we look at an animal’s head, there are notable differences between carnivores and herbivores.
Carnivores like lions have forward-facing eyes that enable them to focus on their prey. In contrast, horses have their eyes on the side of the head, giving them a nearly 360-degree field of vision perfect for spotting predators.
Inside a carnivore’s mouth, there are sharp teeth with prominent canines that can tear up flesh in an instant. Whereas, the surface of horses’ teeth is flat, which is ideal for grinding large amounts of fibrous grass. Although male horses can have canines, these are negligible in size and don’t even erupt in many cases.
The digestive tract of horses is also perfectly adapted to process plants. While a carnivore’s intestines are relatively short, horses have a large cecum to ferment grass and long intestines that are constantly working. Horses also lack a gall bladder to help process large amounts of fat.
Can Horses Digest Meat?
While horses can’t entirely digest meat, they are able to gain certain nutrients from it. However, horses lack the liver function that eliminates toxins from meat, therefore they cannot safely consume large amounts of it.
Horses also cannot vomit like most animals, so they have no way of getting rid of poisonous food. Vomiting is an essential ability to have for all meat-eating animals.
On the other hand, if your horse decides to bite into your hamburger, don’t panic. Processed meat cannot cause any harm to horses, and the parts of it they can’t process will simply be excreted.
Interestingly, horses can get used to eating meals that contain up to 20% fat. Endurance riders will sometimes add plant- or animal-derived oil to their horse’s diet. This is a way of providing them with a lot of energy without the negative effects of concentrate feeds, but it must be introduced gradually.
Do Horses Eat Meat in the Wild?
Horses don’t usually eat meat in the wild. However, there have been anecdotes of feral horses eating small birds or rodents when food supplies are scarce.
Feral horses displaying carnivorous tendencies during harsh winters is not unheard of. The survival instinct of horses is especially strong, and if they can’t even meet basic nutritional needs, they’re going to look for other ways to stay alive.
5 Examples of Horses Eating Meat
Horses are curious animals, especially when it comes to food. They will eagerly try out new flavors, and will often develop a taste for them. This has allowed people to feed them meat and animal products when required by the circumstances.
Surviving the Cold
A cold and unforgiving climate is one of the main reasons why people started feeding horses meat and seafood. The digestive tract of horses is tolerant enough to survive on a diet containing meat, especially when the body desperately needs its nutrients and energy.
A prime example is the horses of Tibet, who have to endure long and harsh winters each year. To help them keep on weight, their owners feed them grain mixed with blood that provides them with proteins. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, horses who were trained to eat meat were considered more valuable in Tibet.
Similarly, the horses of neighboring Bhutan are routinely fed tiger fat and yak meat, according to Deadly Equines. Lord Chamberlain of Bhutan confirmed that the tradition is still ongoing, and 40 royal horses are regularly fed meat.
Another instance of horses eating meat was during the explorations of Antarctica during the early 1900s. The explorers used Manchurian and Siberian ponies that supposedly fed on raw seal meat, blubber, and dried fish. The most famous meat-eating pony of these expeditions was Socks, who shared meaty meals with his owner Sir Ernest Shackleton. (Source: The Long Riders’ Guild)
Lastly, some farmers in Iceland may offer their horses barrels of salted herring in the winter. Since horses like the taste of salt, they can even become fond of eating bizarre foods like these.
Times of war have sometimes left people with no choice but to feed their horses meat. The Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula were known to feed their horses a mixture of dried locusts, camel meat/fat, and honey during troubled times. Since food was scarce in the desert environment, horses often had to survive on what was available.
Horses that suffer from mineral deficiency may start nibbling on food they don’t normally eat, such as bones, cartilage, or antlers. This behavior is called pica, and its purpose in the horse is often to replenish missing minerals.
Certain owners also feed bone meal and beef gelatin to horses as supplements. These additives are rich in proteins and fats and can provide nutritional benefits as a small part of the horse’s diet.
If you’ve been around horses for a while, you know they have a tendency to snatch away food, even if they don’t know what it is. The endless curiosity of horses may cause them to ingest even meat, but this should cause no harm in small quantities.
There have also been extreme cases of horses seeking out meat even when they don’t need it, but these are rare. In 1958, an American gelding known as “Freight Train” reportedly killed and consumed small birds and even attacked humans. On another occasion, the BBC filmed horses eating fish on their own initiative on a British island. (Source: The Horseaholic)
Horses love a good salt lick as much as they love a sweet treat. Processed meat and dried fish have a high salt content, which is why they are a tempting snack to some horses.
Should Horses Eat Meat?
If meat is a good source of protein and is not harmful in small quantities, does that mean we should feed horses meat? Perhaps hard-working horses could benefit from the extra energy source?
Since it’s not part of their natural diet, horses shouldn’t eat meat. As long as there are plant-based alternatives available, you shouldn’t offer your horse meat.
Meat simply doesn’t fit a horse’s natural lifestyle. Their teeth are constantly growing and need to be worn down by chewing fiber. Moreover, their stomachs constantly need to have low amounts of food in them and are not designed to accommodate bigger meals.
While it might be tempting to offer your horse a small piece of meat, it’s simply not right. Other than being unnatural, it also puts the horse’s health at risk if the meat has already started to spoil.
Is Meat Bad for Horses?
Meat has a tendency to spoil quickly and can become bad for horses. Because they cannot vomit, horses have no way of getting rid of food they already ingested. Meat may also have toxin residues that can cause life-threatening diseases such as botulism.
Horses are particularly sensitive to botulism, a neurologic disease caused by ingesting toxins produced by a certain bacterium. Depending on severity, botulism can cause muscle weakness that eventually leads to paralysis. The condition may be fatal if left untreated or the horses ingested large quantities of toxins.
Deadly Equines: The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses
If you want to learn more about this intriguing topic, O’Reill’s book “Deadly Equines” is the place to start. In the book, the author recounts everything that has to do with meat-eating horses from the last 4,000 years. His sources include mythology, legends, literature, movies, news stories, eyewitness reports, and scientific studies.
With “Deadly Equines”, the author’s goal was to expose for the first time the hidden story of meat-eating horses. This eccentric topic has been gaining more attention since the release of viral videos of horses and deer eating small birds.
While consuming meat isn’t the norm for horses, these strange accounts certainly add to the fascination surrounding the species.
Find the Deadly Equines Book here on Amazon.