In ancient Greek myth, Hercules had to face the flesh-eating mares of Diomedes in his eighth labor. However, meat eating horses are not a myth. Many horse owners report seeing their once-placid herbivores hunting and eating birds or smaller animals, such as in this video of a pony eating plover chicks.
In her book Understanding Your Horse’s Behavior (Blood-Horse Publications; 2005) author Sue McDonnell, PhD chronicles a long list of incidents where horses not only ate meat, they hunted and killed before eating it. Animals killed and eaten by horses include rabbits, squirrels, goats, chicks, goldfish and mice. Some horses did not hunt but ate road kill or animals killed by the electric fencing that surrounded their pastures.
Horses that were carnivorous chased their meat, grabbed prey in their mouths or stomped on the creature to kill it. One owner told McDonnell that her horse would bang animals against the stable wall until they died. Other owners reported that their horses tossed the prey as if throwing a ball while others just began chomping away without any preliminary tossing or banging.
Feeding Meat Products
Feeding meat or animal products to horses is not a new idea. In the 14th century, Marco Polo wrote that some horses in Asia were fed fish meal. Dried fish is still fed to horses in Iceland as winter feed. Old horsemen swear by feeding eggs to horses in order to improve their coats, notes Sarah Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., dACVN for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Check the ingredients of a bag of horse feed or a bottle of supplements and you may be surprised to find bone meal, blood meal, eggshells and fish meal. Fish oil is a common supplement. One 2004 study published in the Journal of Animal Science suggested that horses given fish oil had lower heart rates when exercising than horses who do not. Still, many horses do not like the taste of eggs, meat or fish oil. However, some clearly do.
What’s Going On Here?
Although it may seem revolting to us to watch a horse hunt and eat another animal, the horse is not trying to be cruel. Some equine nutritionists that McDonnell spoke to wondered if a meat-eating horse craved protein or calcium in their diets and that was why they turned to hunting.
McDonnell theorizes that horses become carnivorous out of boredom. Horses are browsers by nature. They nibble just about anything with their mouths to see if it’s good to eat or not. Just by chance, some horses may have come across carrion and liked the taste. Other horses may have been trying to play with another species out of boredom and inadvertently killed it. The curious horse then mouths the corpse and either spits it out or eats it and looks for more.