The benefits of browsing: new perspective on horse nutrition

Published 02 July 2012

A researcher at the University of New England believes that the ability to browse on a range of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, roots and mosses might be important for the health and wellbeing of horses.

Mariette van den Berg, a professional equine nutritionist, is giving horse owners the opportunity to contribute to her research by participating in the National Horse Foraging Survey.

In 2009, Ms van den Berg moved to Australia from The Netherlands and founded MB Equine Services, which provides specialised equine nutrition and horse property design and pasture management. “In designing pastures as part of the business,” she said, “I started to investigate the role of alternative forage sources as a drought reserve. And a bit of research made me realise that, in nature, horses browse a lot.

“This raised the question: ‘How do domesticated horses cope with an enclosed environment in which there is no – or only limited – access to browsing?’ Is there something in browsing that might be important for their nutrient balance or gut and dental health?”

Ms van den Berg is hoping to provide some answers to these questions in her research towards a doctoral degree at UNE. She’s inviting horse owners to contribute their own observations of browsing to the National Horse Forage Survey. “I like the idea that people can make a valuable contribution to horse research in this way,” she said. “And the results of the survey are sure to provide me with directions for further research.”

“We don’t often provide our horses with the alternative foods that – in nature – are a large part of their diet,” she explained. “Variety is the spice of life for herbivores – whether they are confined, or foraging on pastures or rangelands – as well as for people. Like us, they are periodically satiated by familiarity and thrive on variety.

“We keep them in a stable or a paddock without feeling obliged to enrich their lives – and edible enrichment has been shown to be the best sort. Such enrichment could address problems of abnormal behaviour and help to avoid ulcers and dental problems.”

She said she hoped that the survey would enable her to make a list of plants – other than grasses – that horses prefer as food. “I’d like to compile a list of foods that are safe for horses to browse on – and a list of those that are unsafe,” she said. She added that the survey gave people the option of uploading photographs of the plants their horses were foraging on if they were unsure of the species.

“Farmers know that planting shrubs and trees on their properties has a range of environmental and agricultural benefits,” she said, “and this possible advantage for their horses could add to that list of benefits.”

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here expands to show Mariette van den Berg working with a horse.