Browsing (feeding on vegetation other than grasses) may be an important aspect of the equine diet that is often overlooked, yet it may play an important role in the digestive health and the natural behaviour of horses. Scientists at the University of New England (NSW, Australia) are embarking on a research project to improve our understanding of an area of equine nutrition that is largely unknown.
Domesticated horses are maintained in conditions very different from those that are free-roaming. Free-roaming horses can spend up to 17hrs per day grazing and browsing, whereas domesticated horses usually have restricted access to forage and may be missing out on the potential benefits of a wider variety of forage sources including browse. Furthermore, restricting foraging behaviour in horses may have negative impact on the digestive health and welfare of confined horses.
Browse is an important component of the diet of free-roaming horses, including our Australian Brumbies, comprising between 10% to 50% of their total diet. Additionally, brumbies and pastured horses have been observed to chew bark of select eucalypt species. The reason why horses chew bark is not known, as investigations into the digestibility and macronutrient content are not conclusive.
Browsing may be an important but generally overlooked aspect of feeding management in horses and may have not only benefits of providing nutrients but it may also play a role in reducing stereotypic behaviour , buffering acids in the gastro intestinal tract or chelation of dietary trace minerals to excrete excess amounts(the process by which the body can excrete excess amounts). Browsing enables horses to increase the time they spend on natural foraging which may reduce boredom that can lead to development of stereotypies. Fodder trees and shrubs can provide an alternative forage source during times of drought and may have beneficial compounds that are not presently well understood.
The team at the University of New England will be studying the influence of browsing on the time budgets of domesticated horses, as well as the nutritive values of alternative fodder sources. In addition, researching various types of forages such as trees and shrub fodder may also provide a more detailed list of plants in Australia (native and introduced) that are safe and unsafe for horses to eat.
The first step in this study is to conduct a horse industry survey to collect information from horse owners about observed incidences of browsing and types of foliages browsed. This information is valuable for determining the next steps in this research project.
Do you want to help? We invite you to participate in the online national horse forage survey.
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