Horses don’t want much in life. Regular exercise, a big field to roam free, perhaps a buddy or two, and plenty of fresh water, grass and hay to eat and drink. Theirs is a simple life.
But when often well-meaning members of the public decide to feed other people’s horses, things can get complicated.
Across the UK, there is a growing problem of people feeding food to horses that’s making them unwell. If your horse has fallen sick because of this, horse insurance can help you cover the cost of treatment.
What’s the issue?
Research shows this is not a subject to be taken lightly.
A study carried out by the British Horse Society and University of Bristol revealed that more than three quarters of horse owners reported their horses had been fed without their permission. And the recent lockdowns had only made things worse.
In a separate study by equine scientist Dr David Marlin, 79% of horse owners reported members of the public interfering with their horses or ponies on private property. 44% reported that it had caused suffering to their animals and, shockingly, in 90 cases their animals had died or had to be put down.
In this article, we take a look at this issue in more detail and discuss what horses eat, how to feed horses safely, and reasons why the public should not feed other people’s horses. We also highlight a national campaign on the subject and look at some real-life experiences of owners who have lost their horses due to public feeding.
What do horses eat?
Horses love to eat. In fact, they spend most of their time munching away on whatever they can get their teeth into. As herbivores, their natural diet is pasture grass and tender plants. This gives a horse most of the nutrition it needs to stay fit and healthy. And when luscious grass isn’t available, the next best thing is hay.
Grains such as oats and corn or concentrated mixes also help make up for any shortfall in nutrition and provide a quick energy boost.
You might also place a salt block or loose salt in your horse’s pasture or paddock so they can help themselves whenever they crave it.
Finally, we come to the treats. These could be apples, carrots or a sugar cube (horses have a notoriously sweet tooth). As an owner, you know not to overdo the treats. Too many and your horse may feel some discomfort or start to become overweight.
The public, however, are not aware of the consequences of feeding a horse the wrong kind of food. And unfortunately, this is where the problem starts.
The rules of feeding horses
We all know the golden rules of spending time around horses. Never walk behind a horse, stay as calm and quiet as possible when near a horse, and don’t wear flip flops!
You’ll no doubt also know the rule about how to feed a horse: with a flat palm so fingers don’t get mistaken for carrots.
But these rules are primarily focused on keeping humans safe when around horses. What about the rules that help keep horses safe?
There is growing momentum behind a campaign designed to do just that. Cue ‘Stop feeding our horses’, which has seen horse riders and owners join forces to help keep horses safe when out to pasture.
From the horse’s mouth: #StopFeedingOurHorses
A national campaign called #StopFeedingOurHorses has been launched to help spread awareness about the dangers of feeding horses, ponies, donkeys and other animals.
Since Covid-19 restrictions first hit in March 2020, there has been an increase in the number of people visiting the countryside. As a result, well-intentioned members of the public have been feeding animals that don’t belong to them, sometimes resulting in the animals getting ill – or even dying.
While lockdowns have been in place, there has been an increase in the number of horses suffering as a result of being fed by the public. Walkers are often ignoring signs explicitly asking them not to feed the horses. It’s true that one apple might not cause a horse any harm, but if multiple walkers are feeding a horse multiple apples (and who knows what else) over the course of a day, the damage can be unthinkable.
Horse owners across the UK are now saying enough is enough.
On the campaign’s website and social media pages, you can find information about why feeding other people’s horses can be so dangerous for the animal, alongside links to news articles about horses and ponies that have fallen seriously ill or lost their lives as a result of public feeding.
The campaign’s aim is to create as much awareness as possible and to come up with ideas that might help spread the word and stop needless upset.
5 reasons not to feed other people’s horses
As a horse owner, you’ll know what you should and shouldn’t be doing to keep your beloved animal safe. This could be anything from taking out horse insurance to making sure you keep up to date with vaccinations and worming.
You’ll also know how to give your horse a well-balanced diet. What you might not know however, is why this is so important. To stand you in good stead when it comes to educating the public about why they shouldn’t feed other people’s horses, here’s a quick reminder.
Here are the top five reasons the public should not be feeding your horse:
1 Feeding horses the wrong thing can make them very poorly
If a horse ingests something that doesn’t agree with them, it can cause illnesses such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). A hormone disorder that is similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans, EMS can lead to other illnesses such as laminitis.
The other thing to remember – and that people might not realise – is that horses can't be sick. Unlike humans (whose stomachs violently contract to send food back up), horses that eat too much food get colic. If the build-up of gas cannot be released (they can’t even burp to relieve the pressure), this can cause blockages and a twisted bowel, leading to potentially dangerous (not to mention expensive) surgery.
When faced with this kind of situation having equine insurance can help financially. However, the best solution is that over-feeding doesn’t happen in the first place.
2 Some plants are dangerous to horses
Certain plants – such as ragwort, foxglove, yew, privet and rhododendron – are poisonous for horses. Depending on the amount a horse consumes, they can even be fatal. Even just placing cut grass in a horse’s field can have terrible consequences.
3 Horses can be allergic to a range of things
Like humans, horses can be allergic to a wide range of things. Alongside things such as dust, pollen, insect bites, trees, injections and grooming products, horses can also be allergic to the food they eat. Once thought to be rare, recent research reveals that food allergies in horses are actually quite common.
4 Hand-feeding horses can lead to biting
There is a school of thought that says hand-feeding a horse treats can encourage them to nip or become pushy. Plus, giving treats to a field of horses could start fights between them – possibly leading to a visit by the vet and a claim on your insurance.
The jury is out on whether there is always a link between hand-feeding and biting, but certainly, an overly eager horse could nip a finger if someone is not used to being around horses. Whatever your thinking on this, one thing is clear: horses have very big teeth. If you’re not used to being near those teeth, you don’t want to experience what it feels like to be bitten by them.
5 If it’s not your horse, it’s not your horse to feed
Last but not least, unless you are responsible for a horse, you should not be feeding it. As an owner, you will have a fixed feeding routine for your horse. Any other treats and goodies it eats will interfere with that schedule.
The public needs to understand that all horses they see in fields will have someone looking after them. If they are concerned about the welfare of a horse they should try to speak to a local about who owns the animal. There could be a really good reason why a horse is in a field without much grass to graze on or is being kept in a seemingly quite small area.
Real-life stories: Suffering can be avoided
There are far too many stories about owners losing their beloved animals as a result of the careless actions of well-meaning members of the public.
Here we look at three examples of horses that passed away because people didn’t know the consequences of their actions. They might just make people think twice about offering food to a horse they meet whilst walking in the countryside.
Debbie and Mac
When Debbie Frost found her horse Mac, sweating and in visible pain, she knew this was a serious situation. A visit from the vet confirmed that her horse had a severe case of colic which ended up twisting his gut and Mac having to be put to sleep.
The colic is thought to have been caused by Mac being fed too many apples by walkers. This is despite the horse having been kept on private land and with clear signs requesting people not feed the animals.
Mac was a former racehorse, who was enjoying the quiet life after retiring from the track. As Debbie said: “He was a perfectly healthy, much loved horse, he was my life, this should not have happened.”
John and Vera
Earlier this year, John was left devastated after his 14-year-old horse Vera died suddenly. Neighbours called to say they could see Vera on the ground, unable to get herself back on her feet again. She became so weak she couldn’t even lift her head. It was clearly very distressing for the rest of the herd who were nudging her, trying to help Vera stand again.
Her eyes were bloodshot, her legs stiff, and her breathing was really shallow. It was reported that passers-by had been feeding Vera carrots, loaves of bread and even iced fairy cakes earlier that day.
Speaking about the incident, John’s friend Charlotte said: “Within the space of two hours she'd gone from normal happy horse to deceased and it was so preventable if people would just stop feeding them.”
Lisa-Michelle and Flossie and Merry Legs
It was in 2020 that Lisa-Michelle received a call from her friend telling her to sit down. It was clear the news was bad, and Lisa-Michelle had a feeling it was going to be about the horses.
Both Flossie and Merry Legs were found with froth coming out of their noses and both died shortly after. Remnants of a picnic were later found in the horses’ field, including corn on the cobs and litter.
Lisa-Michelle explained there has always been a problem with people not closing gates behind them and dropping litter. However, with a new influx of lockdown walkers who are not familiar with the rules of the countryside, the consequences for these two horses were fatal.
“This was such a mindless act; it didn’t need to happen,” Lisa-Michelle said, “but we can’t watch the fields 24/7.”
Equesure: The horse insurance specialists
It’s not just the actions of others you need to consider when looking after your horse. Horses have a reputation for getting themselves into scrapes at the best of times. Whichever way you look at it, taking out insurance for your horse is a must. If your horse was to need medical attention, having the right cover in place can reduce some potentially hefty vets’ bills.
With more than 60 years of equestrian knowledge, the team at Equesure will find an insurance policy tailored to your needs. We offer bespoke horse insurance with various options of cover to ensure the policy is right for you.
Call us on 01480 220089 or request a free quote today.