Can a Horse Get All of Its Nutrition Just Eating Grass?

Horse in pasture.
Image Credit: K. Blocksdorf

All members of the equine family have evolved to extract their necessary nutrition from grasses. Ponies and donkeys especially are able to extract nutrients from coarse grasses and plant that might not support a larger horse. Their teeth are suited to grinding the coarse plant fiber, and the long, slow digestive system efficiently extracts nutrients and energy from the plants it eats.

Some horses are easy keepers and are able to live quite well on minimal pastures.

Others will be starved for nutrition. A horse that is working very hard may not get enough nutrition.  It really depends on the type of horse you have, and what its job is as to whether or not it will thrive on a pasture, especially one that isn’t top notch.

Grass and Nutrients

On the best quality pasture, horses should be able to get all the nutrients they need. This, after all, is what they evolved to eat.  Unfortunately, very few owners, through no fault of their own, have top quality pasture. Overgrazing, drought, freezing, poor management, poor soil, and snow cover all affect the quality of the grass and the horse’s ability extract adequate nutrition. Some of these conditions can be compensated for with good pasture management and soil amendments. 

Even with good care, a perfect growing season, and excellent soil, most horses will require supplementation with minerals, fodder, or concentrates for at least part of the year.

Early spring, winter, and fall may slow grass growth, and make the grass less than optimum for your horse. Be prepared to supplement with hay and possibly concentrates. Watch your horse’s condition and for signs of weight loss. Again, each horse is an individual, so what works for one might not be suitable for another.

Overgrazing

Avoid overgrazing by limiting the number of horses on pasture, and by rotating pastures so the grass has time to recover between grazings. Horses will crop grass down to the soil level, which means in hot, dry conditions, grass may burn and dry out before it has a chance to grow. A lot of horses kept in a small area means soil will become compacted, and that makes it very difficult for anything but the most aggressive weeds to grow. Although a weedy pasture may look green, it doesn’t provide a lot of nutrition for your horse, and some may even be toxic if eaten in quantity.

In some areas, minerals or other nutrients might be depleted from the soil, leaving a deficit in the nutritional value to the horse. Selenium, in particular, is of concern to horse owners. This mineral is scarce in many areas of North America, and that means horses won’t be getting enough from grass or hay. A balanced supplement is ideal for replacing this essential mineral. Selenium is an important antioxidant and a deficiency can cause something called white muscle disease.  If your horse is prone to tying-up, a painful stiffness of the muscles after work, a lack of selenium may be part of the problem.

Ponies, donkeys, and some mules may need to be restricted from eating too much fresh grass as they metabolize their food much more efficiently. Overeating can easily cause obesity and health problems like founder--a painful inflammation within the hooves. Even horses that do quite well on rich pasture may need a period of adjustment if they’ve been eating hay, say after a long winter. A quick change can cause colic and other health problems.

Can a horse remain healthy when grazing only?

The simple answer is yes, a pasture can potentially be the sole source of nutrition for your horse. Given the variability of a horse’s own metabolism and needs, though, pasture alone may not be sufficient. This is why keeping a careful watch over your horse’s condition is essential.