Local knowledge of forage. Strange theory

I love to watch animals select the grasses as they graze. The cattle, goats, sheep, and horses we have typically use unimproved pastures. We mow as needed, overseed occasionally, and control poisonous weeds. Other than that, grazing animals pick and choose what they want to eat. We add minerals and nutrient sources and this all seems to work pretty well.

Have you ever stopped to think about the amount of thought that goes into the selection of what the animals actually eat? Some things are potentially harmful, but apparently quite tasty. But the safer grasses and forbs eaten by horses acclimated to their pastures….I don’t know. I see a level of intelligence there.

So, my weird, strange, theory. We’ve moved our animals to a brand new climate in a state where very different things grow. Ruminants are much easier to put out on grasses because they just aren’t as susceptible to digestive disorders as horses are. Nevertheless, we brought an older cow from our previous state, who needed a companion anyway, so we bought a local heifer before turning them out on grass. It seems to have worked. I was hand grazing our cow before we bought the heifer and she selected different grasses than she does now. I believe she has benefitted from local knowledge that the heifer learned from her mother. They graze together and, although our older cow is in charge, she eats what the heifer eats.

Our horse, pony, and donkey are on dry lot right now. Their pasture won’t be ready until we replace some barbed wire. It’s also quite rich and they will have to be introduced slowly. In fact, the pony and donkey will only have access to a small area. The horse, however, I think could benefit once we are in the position to buy a local horse to show her what to eat. I was even thinking of finding a retiree to hang out with her.

What do you guys think? Horses have amazing senses of smell, but I think they might benefit from local knowledge. So many plants are related, but can have very different biological effects.


I think there is something to what you are thinking. I also think that given the chance, lots of varied forage, horses will seek out what they need, eating herbs when needed.


There is a Facebook group on a similar topic: Equi-biome. Not a lot of activity in the group, just educational posts.

It’s associated with a company that does sequencing of the microbials of the hind gut:

From my casual following of what they do, their premise is basically that in the wild, horses would be selecting a wide variety of forages as needed to support both their own health and the health of the microbes in their guts. We jeopardize their health by removing that variety.


Thanks for the link! That’s interesting.

I hand graze my horses in the natural habitat park/bog where the barn is. So I get to stand and watch what they eat. There’s a lot of swamp grass that is yummy early season but way too twiggy by August. Also they are very particular about which weeds to eat. Horses can’t see right under their noses but with lips whiskers and nose they can pick out dandilions from among the buttercups no problem. It is very interesting. These are well fed on hay so when they graze its stuff they really want to eat.


Whether horses can learn local knowledge of forage from another horse or not- I can’t comment on that. My horses moved here from a stabled/paddock environment on the coast, and acclimatized to semi arid 100 % turn out with pasture for much of the year, and no one ever showed them what the locals were eating- they musta figured it out for themselves. But I do know that they are experts at selecting grasses and herbs that are “good”, and seek out mineral licks that supply what they need. How they can select one grass or herb and avoid another at close quarters is amazing, where they can’t see what they are doing, very dexterous lips. They know far more than we do. This is why it is so important to run a mower around a pasture after horses have finished grazing it down, doing this stops the plants that have not been eaten from going to seed, and allows those plants that have been selected as horse feed and grazed down to be able to grow back better.

Horses love to eat many things that we don’t purposefully feed them. Tree bark being one of those things… poplar is choice around here. The sap runs sweet in the spring (I’m told, by horses) and trees are ringed. Which is OK, because although it will kill the poplar tree, many more will sprout up from rootstock. But young poplars are no good… they don’t get good until they are reaching maturity. Dandilions are also excellent feed for horses, and greatly valued by horses. Many hay farms spray herbicide on dandilions (and the grass around them), to get “rid” of them from the hay crop. This is only because they do “slightly” reduce the yield of hay on the field. We DON’T do this to our hay fields, which go through a stage of being bright yellow with dandilion flowers in the spring. And we still get good tonnage. Once the flowers die down, the grass and alfalfa grows up just fine and the yellow fields turn green, we find. Our “much sought after” hay for horses always has some dandilion leaf in it, and every scrap is cleaned up by horses all year round. When I deliver a wheel barrow load of loose hay to my horses in training in the summer months, the licking up of the “chaff” on the bottom of the barrow is of prime importance- that’s the shattered dandilion leaf.

IMO, horses are not meant to only eat a monoculture of herbicide sprayed grasses. And when a horse says that the hay is “no good”, just because it looks “fine” to the human, doesn’t mean that there isn’t an issue. Horses KNOW. Humans DON’T know, they just think they know.


Not to take this thread on a total tangent, but the spraying of hay is becoming a serious problem for me and my herd.

I don’t know if it’s herbicides or the propionic acid preservatives that have become so popular, but my horses won’t touch the majority of “high quality” hay I buy lately if it’s been treated.

The frustrating thing is a lot of the people I buy hay from are middle men who have no clue how the fields were managed and will tell you whatever you want to hear. They reliably supply “pretty,” high nutrient hay for top dollar, guarantee you clean bales, etc. But it’s not worth it when the horses won’t eat it!

1 Like

My horse came from Argentina and when I hand graze her she tries to eat things I do find odd. Weeds that I know other horses would not eat (malva, hemlock, lichen on fallen twigs from cypress trees) and I do wonder if she is missing something…

1 Like

their olfaction is about 50 times more acute than ours. And WE can determine what we want to eat by it’s smell. We can differentiate different spices by their aroma…we know what we like and don’t like. I am guessing that a horse will probably not be very willing to test something that doesn’t smell good/like something they know to eat unless they are hungry and not much else to eat, or there is SOMETHING in there they smell that they crave…a mineral that might be otherwise missing in their diet. I’m not sure about what you postulate, but not discounting it either.

1 Like

I was riding along on buckle end and allowing my horse to graze a bit, taking swipes at the long grasses and flowers we passed because it was his day out as much as mine. Our companion horse had never been permitted to graze in such a way (considered to be bad manners) and it was interesting to see how she watched my horse and then tried a flower or two for herself. They do learn a lot by observation. She very soon got the idea!


i pre-ordered this book this morning. Maybe he touches on this idea in here?



That looks like a neat book.


Studies have shown that they learn from each other, so why not learn about food?


This is why I am so very happy with our decision to make a serious move away from the hub of human “civilization” 15 years ago, make a big change in horse care, and make our own hay. I never complain about the heat, or the long days on the tractor in the summer, snowy days in the winter (well sometimes), or my aching back. Because of the pay off. The hay. I know every field, and what grows there, and what goes into every bale. The freedom from hay dealers is epic. We don’t have to buy from hay dealers, and we don’t sell to them either. Highly recommended. Even more so when I see the prices people are having to pay to buy horse feed.


tell me about your equipment!
I’m tired of the guy who cuts and bales for us. Every year he comes later and later. He is a month too late this year.