As the grass (finally) begins to grow the first thing that most people then do, is to cut it. The question for many horse owners though is should I feed the cuttings to my horse?
I saw a recent reminder of the dangers of feeding grass cuttings to horses, from the Leinster Horse and Pony rescue centre on their Facebook page.
But what surprised me were the number of experienced horse owners who quickly replied that they fed grass cuttings and never had a problem with it.
So in this post I wanted to explore what were the risks – and why is it that the standard advice usually given is not to feed them to horses.
Grass cuttings are small pieces of freshly cut grass – and as horses eat grass it is logical to assume that grass cuttings are edible and delicious to horses as well. In fact they are, but there are a number of differences that you need to be mindful of;
- cut grass is smaller than the pieces of grass that horses tear off to eat or hay / haylage and can clog the digestive tract
- grass starts to break down the moment it is cut and releases heat in the process (a lot of heat I use cuttings to mulch and deter the growth of docks in my garden and it works, because the heat is so great)
- grass contains high levels of carbohydrates which are already a risk for laminitis prone horses and ponies and grass cuttings contain even more concentrated levels.
- domestic lawn clippings often contain herbicides and poisons used to suppress unwanted plants and kill moss, this can poison horses.
- finally cut grass disguises any unwanted or poisonous plants such as small ragwort or buttercups
Despite the harm they can cause horses do like them as a delicacy. But before you decide to give them to your own horse (and never give them to horses you don’t know) it’s worth considering again how the equine digestive system works.
The Equine Digestive System
As many horse owners know the equine digestive system is extremely delicate and is designed for a very consistent and relatively poor quality diet.
Sudden changes in the diet can cause upsets leading to aches and pains and possible colic. So one of the factors in deciding any new food is to consider what they are currently eating and if this is a big change for them.
Other problems with grass clipping and digestion, are caused due to the high levels of fermentation that occur in the hind gut when they are being digested. This causes a rapid build up of lactic acid, which affects the pH of the gut and can kill microbes needed to protect the horse.
This can also lead to an increased risk of laminitis.
Managing Feeding Routines With Horses
There are also other factors to consider when feeding horses easy food such as clippings.
Normally we make horses work for their food which slows down their intake and helps to manage the delicate process of digestion. The gut needs to receive a regular intake of food spread out in manageable portions. This is why slow feeders are so important to prevent horses bolting their food and over stressing the digestive system.
Piles of clippings can be easily and quickly eaten causing a sudden influx of very rich food.
Can Grass Clippings Be Fed In Moderation?
Some of the replies I read from horse owners stated that they spread the clippings out to avoid them fermenting or reducing the impact of the fermentation process on the horse. This won’t make any difference though for a horse that bolts its food even it it does slow him down marginally, because the fermentation process continues inside the gut.
Another reply warned that her horse was fed grass cuttings from a neighbour and it contained plant poison which ultimately killed her pony.
Can you feed clippings if you know the source and are happy that the horse’s diet will not be affected too much?
It’s a tricky question and there are still plenty of other risks to consider, for example;
- Is your horse prone to laminitis? – most of the advice on grass cuttings focuses on the risks of colic, but for many smaller ponies it is laminitis that is a bigger threat.
- Grass cuttings are a very concentrated food source and it is likely to have the same effect as a horse breaking into the feed container (which happens plenty of times).
The decision of what to feed your horse depends on the horse itself. Most owners will know their own horse’s weaknesses and will have already adapted their diet accordingly. In particular the following groups of horses will be especially prone to a negative reaction from eating grass cuttings, although other horses can also be affected.
- Horses prone to laminitis (smaller ponies in particular) will be strongly affected by grass cuttings and should not be fed them at all.
- Horses with especially delicate digestive systems will be affected by the sudden change in diet.
- Stable kept horses are more prone to colic since they have restricted movement and are more likely to eat out of boredom and bolt food.
- Treats can cause fights amongst groups of horses and increase the risk of injury.
It is also important to remember that all horses need access to clean drinking water, especially immediately after eating to ensure that their gut does not become blocked.
And finally a note of warning (mainly to non horse owners)
NEVER FEED OTHER PEOPLE'S HORSES WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION OR BY THROWING GRASS CLIPPINGS INTO A FIELD WHERE HORSES ARE LIVING.
Other articles on equine digestion that you may be interested in are;
I’d love to hear your own experiences and thoughts on grass clippings or other food types for horses, that can cause problems.