All horse’s particular foraged favourites vary but can include everything from thistles and oak leaves to willow rosehip and wild garlic. While some can be good for your horse, other plants lurking in our fields and hedgerows can actually be toxic and horses are not always discerning when it comes to their choices. With the help of Gil Riley, Petplan Equine Vet of the Year we have put together a helpful guide to what’s good and what’s not.
Click on any of the plants in the table to see what it looks like and a bit more information.
URGENT MESSAGE REGARDING SYCAMORE POISONING
At Petplan Equine we have noticed an increase in cases of sycamore poisoning and have asked vet Gil Riley to provide some top tips on spotting the signs and avoiding it.
Acorns - TOXIC
Over engorgement can lead to acute colic and kidney failure, can be fatal.
Blackberries – GOOD
Rich in anti-oxidants and Vitamin C. If feeding blackberry try to avoid feeding the thorns, which could lodge in the lips or tongue and cause an infection.
Blackthorn (aka Sloes) - Non-toxic
Blackthorn has a very high roughage content so could potentially cause an impaction if consumed in excess. An impaction is a common type of colic that can develop if a horse eats an excess amount of dry roughage.
Brambles - Non-toxic
Non-toxic but the thorns can cause damage to the lips and tongue, possibly permitting an infection to become established.
Chalk stream watercress - Good
Horses love to graze on Watercress. This plant has been considered to be an antioxidant and a digestive aid.
Cherry - TOXIC
Harmful in large quantities. Seeds contain cyanide but fortunately at a very low concentration.
Clovers - Non-toxic (in moderate quantities)
High quantities of White (Alsike) clover can lead to a painful skin condition that occurs on the white socks of horses- it bears a resemblance to mud fever. Clovers can also be colonized by various types of mould and one of these causes a black pigmentation of the tongue and the horse to salivate excessively.
Coarse Grasses - Non-toxic
Coarse grass is non-toxic but often not palatable enough for horses to enjoy eating.
Cow parsley - GOOD
Horses can eat cow parsley because it is nutritious and assists in digestion. It is believed Cow parsley also aids the wound healing process and it has qualities similar to fennel. It is common at the base of hedges and around the edge of fields.
Dandelions - Non-Toxic
They do have a sour taste so horses will tend to avoid eating if possible.
Field Horsetail - Moderate
Tolerated in moderate quantities but there have been signs of TOXICITY displayed in horses eating hay containing more that 20% Horsetail. Signs include progressive symptoms of weakness, staggering, nervousness, poor vision, muscular weakness and constipation. Fatalities can occur, but the immediate removal of contaminated food brings about rapid recovery.
Goose grass (Cleavers) - Non-toxic
Most horses will tend to avoid eating Goose Grass if they can.
Gorse - Non-toxic
Typically avoided by horses. If any gorse is found in the fields your horse grazes, consider getting a goat as a pasture companion as they are excellent at clearing gorse.
Hawthorn - GOOD
Flavonoids present in Hawthorn have shown to enhance the connective tissue structure of the endothelial lining of heart cavities and the blood and lymph vessels.
Mallow - TOXIC
Toxic if eaten in large quantities, Mallow is a common weed in horse pastures. Signs of Mallow poisoning include profuse sweating, rapid breathing, incoordination (staggers) and muscle tremors.
Nettles - Non-toxic
No deleterious effects. When nettles are young their sting is sharper but if they are cut and allowed to wilt, the sting goes out of them and the horses like to eat them. As nettles age they become drier, the sting weakens and horses will eat them from the stalk.
Plantains - Non-toxic
Palatable to horses and may be selectively grazed before grasses or legumes. A perennial ‘weed’, often found on roadsides and in ditches.
Ragwort - TOXIC
Each mouthful will irreparably kill some liver tissue. No amount is safe! It is widely accepted that the plant loses its unpleasant taste when it dies but even in this state it is still very dangerous. This means that ragwort found in hay or haylage, or leaves that have fallen off a plant in the field and died, can very easily be eaten unknowingly and will be just as harmful as a living plant.
Rosehips - GOOD
Rich in Vitamin C and contains potential anti-inflammatories. Several “natural” products are marketed purporting to have anti-inflammatory effects on the basis of their containing rosehip but evidence thus far is anecdotal.
Thistles - Non-toxic
Some horses love to eat thistles, even favouring the spiky heads although for us it doesn’t look very comfortable watching them scoff it!
Wild camomile - Non-toxic
Aromatic and slightly bitter taste similar to apples, many horses love it!
Wild celery - Non-toxic
Wild celery is found mainly on boggy riversides and marshy ground, as it needs wet conditions to grow.
Wild garlic - Good
Wild garlic is considered to have fly repellent properties as horses apparently excrete the sulphur contained in the garlic through their skin. It has also been suggested consumption of garlic helps maintain the intestinal bacteria that play a very important role in the horses’ digestive processes.
Willow - GOOD
Contains Salicylic acid (we know as aspirin), a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.
Yew trees (Taxus baccata). – TOXIC
These are deadly poisonous to horses. They are so toxic that even chewing on a single branch can (and frequently does) cause INSTANT death. Fortunately Yew is very bitter tasting and most horses will not eat it – however in circumstances when forage is short they will sometimes chew Yew with fatal consequences. PLEASE be aware of this risk and warn other horse owners. For centuries Yew has been grown around church yards to ensure that livestock cannot gain access and some of the Yew trees in the UK are of tremendous age (one is known to be over 4,000 years old). Horse owners are not always aware of just how dangerous this plant is. Always ensure that Yew clippings are never put into the same field as horses that are grazing. Most parts of the tree are toxic, except the bright red aril surrounding the seed. The foliage remains toxic even when wilted. The major poison within the yew is the alkaloid taxine. It is a cardio-toxin and the effect it exerts on the heart causes fibrillation and acute cardiac arrest. There is no treatment and the death is acute, often with a single mouthful.
Sycamore Seeds - TOXIC
Sycamore seeds have been recently identified as the cause of Atypical Myopathy, a distressing disease of sudden onset in horses of all ages. The seeds contain a toxin (Hypoglycin A) which causes damage to cardiac, skeletal (postural) and respiratory muscles after ingestion by the horse. The condition is fatal in well over 50% cases. It is most common in the autumn when most of the seeds fall but can be seen all year round.
Fence off sycamore trees, sweep up the seeds (or use a Poo-hoover if you're lucky enough to have one) and remember that because of their shape the seeds can travel quite far. Providing good grazing or supplementary feed at pasture means horses are less likely to eat the seeds. A lower stocking density is associated with decreased risk as well as there is more grass to go round.