Why horses like grass
Watching horses graze is without a doubt one of the most peaceful experiences there is. The horses are relaxed, the rhythm of their chewing becomes melodic, and one can easily get lost in thought. Some friends were watching their horses happily grazing and got to wondering what the horses think of it. Does it taste good? Do they bored eating the same thing all day? I asked three horses living at different farms here in Ohio to share their views.
They agree fresh pasture grass is wonderful. Teddy (a senior thoroughbred gelding), describes the smooth texture that he loves about grass and gives a feeling of bliss like ‘omg this is so good!’ The best part in his opinion is it creates a sort of mushy paste when chewed, unlike anything else he eats.
Stormy (a young gray pony) also likes the way grass forms a paste in his mouth. “You mush it around in your mouth” – here he gives a yummy feeling and shows holding a wad of grass in the back of his mouth and playing with it, much like we’d do with hard candy. He notices the flavor change with the weather. Cool days make the flavor more ‘fresh’ or slightly more intense, as if the added moisture inside the leaf tips brings out the flavor.
Flicka (an Appaloosa mare) describes grass as having a pleasant “chewing sensation” and she also likes that her mouth doesn’t feel full as she’s chewing; this lack of a full mouth is unique to grass. She likes the taste of grass which to her seems “tangy.” [Her pasture is a former farm. It’s possible the crops grown there changed the soil in a way that affects the taste of the grass.]
Environmental factors affect her experience. “There’s more moisture in it when it’s warm” which she prefers. “When the lawn is mowed there’s more gas” – the grass seems to emit a gas or vapor from the cut tips of the leaves which she can sense for a few inches above the plants. Happily this does not affect the taste.
Compared to eating hay, Flicka says grazing is much better because she can be out on wide open spaces while she eats. “No being cooped up in a cupboard. THAT’s boring, to stand there all day.”
Stormy feels hay is too chewy and it takes too long to eat. He exaggeratedly shows it has to be chewed a looooong time. “I like the slender stalks” of grass. The best part of grazing to him is “there’s food all around me”. He makes a sweeping gesture to show there’s grass for acres surrounding him. That gives him a sense of security and contentment.
Is it boring eating the same thing all day every day? Flicka shrugs, no, because “I have a hunger, I have a need” and those plants satisfy it.
Teddy says “It’s the same throughout, that’s why we like it.” He gets a feeling of calm and contentment knowing the same food is growing throughout his pasture. He’ll often look for one type of grass and eat that exclusively, then look for another and so on.
Stormy feels differently. He does get bored eating the same flavors, so “I get different ones”, he eats different plants to vary the flavors.
Horses look for tasty foods with good nutritional value. Teddy feels all horses know if they only had bushels of carrots or apples all day long they’d get sick, as well as sick and tired of eating them. “Those are treats, we don’t want those all the time.” He says he does look for “what’s best for me, but I want what I like, too.”
Flicka agrees that it would not be appropriate to eat too many treat foods; her body knows it would be wrong on a basic instinctual level. She shows she can tell this because the color is wrong – the colors orange and red are ‘empty’, devoid of nutrition in her opinion. Green is a ‘full’ color, with the most nutrition. So then what about brown hay? “We know it’s nutritious because we chew it.” The texture and ‘chew factor’ of hay lets horses know it’s similar to grass and is healthy. She avoids plants with an ‘off’ taste. One of them is a short weed with large broad leaves (looks like plantain). She wrinkles her nose in disgust at the thought of them. “I leave those, they’re too mature. They taste awful.”
Stormy’s mom taught him how to tell if a plant is healthy to eat. “It’s easy, we can tell by the branch.” He shows a tall plant with a woody stem and small offset leaves to be avoided. Mom told him “if it has leaves, let it be.” He’s learned the hard way to avoid certain plants. “There are some over there with prickly leaves”. He makes a wrinkled ‘ick’ face. “I won’t touch those.” In addition to tasting bad “they get in your hair” (they have burrs). Another he avoids is in rosette shape. It tastes warm and slightly off as if not fresh and just a little past its prime, but he knows it’s just that plant’s normal flavor.
They wanted to tell of two other favorites, dandelion and clover. Teddy and Stormy both love white clover and don’t care for the purple. Teddy describes white clover as similar in texture to grass. He searches for the right words to describe the appeal: “sweeter, tonier” meaning “it’s more flavorful” than grass. The flowers taste similar to their leaves but with less flavor, the flower is a little bland in the center.
To Stormy, the white clover always taste warm as if the plant has been warmed by the sun; the grass adjacent to it does not. Is the flavor sweet? That’s what humans always say is the reason horses prefer clover. “No… more mild.” But is it sugary? “Oh yes, it has a lot of sugar concentration in it” focused at the root/base of the plant, though he doesn’t taste a sweetness in the way he does with say, a peppermint. The type of sugar in clover “has more of a ‘punch’ to it”. He shows it affects one’s body, it seems he’s describing a blood-sugar spike.
Flicka prefers purple clover. “Oh yes, I like those. The purple ones are sweet, and tender, I like to munch those.” White clover: “Oh, not so much. I get tired of those. There’s not much nutrients in those.” She feels because they taste a bit bland to her there must not be much nutrition. Comparing clover leaves to grass, she describes the grass as softer and sweeter, the clover leaves are a little bitter but in a tasty way. “I like them though.”
Flicka’s favorite part of dandelions is the leaves near the base since that’s “where the moisture is.” She’s careful which leaves she eats because some hurt her mouth (I think she’s saying the serrated edges on mature leaves can be sharp.) She’s not fond of dandelion seeds because “they blow up your nose” and tickle, it can get annoying.
Teddy was eating lots of dandelion flowers the day we spoke. I asked if they’re bitter as I’ve heard. “No – warm, tender” especially in the center of the flower, like there’s a little bit of juice/sap there. How about the leaves? Are they bitter? He hadn’t been eating the leaves up to that point but took a few to prove a point. He tells me he likes the leaf, “it’s the most tender part, the ‘meat’ “.
Stormy enjoys them as well. “I like to pop the heads off”, eating the flowers and leaving most of the stalks. “Fuzzy and warm” – the flower petals are pleasantly fuzzy in his mouth, and they’re warm as if cooked. He rolls his eyes in pleasure thinking about it. “Mmmm!”