Tempting Picky EatersJanuary 25, 2021
We humans have a huge diversity of individual dietary preferences. Some have a raging sweet tooth, others prefer salty or spicy, love or hate specific vegetables, etc.
It’s not as complicated for horses. Their instinctive taste preferences are geared toward survival. Try as you might, you won’t be able to create an acquired taste for sushi in a horse.
Horses instinctively seek readily digestible calories. Calories are the first priority in survival. Every study on horses or other herbivores has shown preference is linked to simple carbohydrate content. High carbohydrates also usually means low fiber (thus high digestibility) and often high protein as well.
Simple carbohydrates, sugars and starches, are the most easily utilized calorie source. Beyond this, there are factors of aroma and possibly texture. Put a pile of freshly cut young grass next to one of straw and you know what the horse will select. Alfalfa versus grass hay is also a predictable selection.
These preferences are virtually universal. Find me a healthy horse that will turn down the offer of a freshly picked mature ear of corn or a peach. It won’t happen.
Since starch has virtually no taste or aroma, horses basing their choices on simple carbohydrate content are selecting for sugar. The simple sugar content (e.g. like table sugar or fruit sugar) in grasses is relatively low but more complicated plant sugars with less intense flavors may also appeal to horses even though we don’t appreciate them.
Horses habituated to sweet feed may be difficult to switch to plain grains, brans, or beet pulp. Things that other horses find very appealing they will turn down because they have come to expect and look for the more intense sweet flavor. The best way to deal with this is to very gradually replace the sweet feed with the new food item.
When a horse is just picky in general and suspicious of anything new, and a medical cause has been ruled out, you can experiment to find a taste and aroma that the horse finds irresistible. Apple, banana, peppermint, cherry, anise, and fenugreek are all favorites. Red beet root (not sugar beet) powder works for many.
B complex vitamins can also stimulate appetite, especially in horses that have increased dietary needs because they are under stress, heavily exercising, are ill or recovering from illness, or have not been eating well.
Horses have good instincts for identifying food items that are at least highly likely to provide them with easily utilized calories. When you know the common preferences, you can utilize that to convince them to clean up foods they might otherwise think are not appealing.
By Dr. Eleanor Kellon