We’ve all looked at a horses’ big gnashers and wondered what all of those teeth are for. Can horses eat meat? You don’t really see horses eating meat, but those huge, gnarly teeth can’t just be for plants… can they? Read on to find out whether horses eat meat or not.
Herbivores, Omnivores And Carnivores
In order to understand a horses’ diet, you first need to understand the difference between herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores. The word ‘herbivore’ is a noun used to describe animals that feed on plants. These animals will survive mainly to plants. Other species on these diets can range from certain insects, such as aphids, to huge animals, like elephants!
However, Herbivores are important within the food web. The food web is a term used to describe all of the food chains within relation to each other. Organisms can be grouped into ‘trophic’ levels -this refers to the nutritional level of an organism within the food chain.
Organisms that only rely on themselves for food, such as plants and algae, form the first trophic level. The next trophic level is formed by herbivores, which eat autotrophs. Lastly, the third level consists of both omnivores (which consume both autotrophs and animals) and carnivores – carnivores consume meat.
Typically, Herbivores have flat teeth. This helps them to crush and grind (like a pestle and mortar) all of the plant matter that they consume. Herbivores will also have long digestive systems – their digestive tract can be up to ten times longer than their body! This is so their bodies have enough time to break down all of the nutrients within the plants.
Omnivores will normally have slightly sharper teeth, with some flat teeth such as molars for crushing and grinding plants. Some are sharper, more chisel-shaped teeth at the front which can help when tearing meat, a happy medium.
Carnivores typically have shorter digestive systems as meat is dense in nutrients. Because the animal before has already consumed them and broken them down. This is so the digestive system doesn’t need to work as hard to break it up. So they can absorb nutrients from meat a lot easier.
So, what about horses? Horses are herbivores, as they have long digestive systems and can survive purely on plants, without any meat.
The Horses’ Digestive System
The horses’ digestive system starts with their teeth – you know how we get adult teeth in after our baby teeth? Well, due to how much time horses spend chewing really tough, hard-to-eat plants, their teeth get worn down really easily.
To make sure that they always have strong chompers to eat with, horses have evolved so that they constantly have teeth coming through, or “erupting”. We’ve all seen a horses’ toothy smile – they seem to have really flat teeth, which can be used for crushing.
They’ve got incisors so that they can cut through plant matter, and then 12 premolars and 12 molars – these are used to do more of the ‘pestle and mortar’ type grinding that we spoke about earlier.
After chowing down on all of that plant matter, the horse will swallow, and the plant matter will move through their body and into their stomach. Whilst in the stomach, the horse doesn’t absorb many of the plant matters’ nutrients – most of this happens later.
The horses’ stomach is considerably small in relation to other animals, with its stomach only taking up 10% of its digestive tract as a whole! It spends some time being mixed, broken down, and stored in the stomach, before traveling into the horses’ small intestine.
When compared to the horses’ stomach, the horses’ small intestine is massive! The ‘small’ intestine of a horse is a whopping 70ft long! It takes up around 30% of the horses’ digestive tract, and this is where most of the horses’ nutrients are absorbed.
If a horse eats slower, its body has a longer time to digest the nutrients, which is probably why they have such small stomachs. After traveling through the small intestine, the plant matter will travel through the rest of the digestive tract – the cecum, the large colon, and the small colon – these parts continue to break down the food, absorbing nutrients, fats, sugars or water as they do. This is called ‘fermentation’ or microbial digestion. Finally, the broken-down plant matter exits the horse through the rectum.
Can Horses Eat Meat?
If offered meat, some horses may eat it and this shouldn’t cause them too much harm. However, their digestive systems aren’t really made for eating meat, so if a horse eats a lot of meat it can lead to some nasty complications.
Horses that don’t receive all of the nutrients should probably eat meat if they are desperate and it is their only option, as most would survive. They might also try some meat out of curiosity.
Horses can’t vomit, so feeding them too much meat can be fatal, as it can lead to a build-up in their digestive system.
There have been claims that some horses have diets of only meat, however, this is not typical of horses. Sometimes, meat products may be mixed in with their food in order to give horses some extra nutrients, but if this is excessive it can be harmful.
What Does A Horse Eat?
Due to the fact that horses have such small stomachs, they shouldn’t really eat too much at one time. Despite this, horses do not like the feeling of an empty stomach, so can spend a lot of time foraging. Horses eat little and often.
- They need a high-fiber diet, so they eat a lot of hay and grass, as this is super good for their digestive systems. Haylage is also really good for them.
- Horses also really like fruit and vegetables, as they add something moist to their diet.
Although horses enjoy fruit and treats, they shouldn’t have too much of it, as it can cause health problems such as obesity or even laminitis – which is where their feet can become inflamed. This is extremely painful for horses, and it can take weeks or sometimes even months for a horse to recover.
So whilst horses will sometimes eat meat, it’s not very good for them and they should really be given their preferred diet of grass, hay and haylage. If a horse accidentally has a bite or two of meat it shouldn’t be an issue, but for the most part, this should be avoided in order to keep your horses’ digestive system happy and running for longer.