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Horses and Their Sense of Taste

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Important for Horse Health

Horses spend more of their time eating than any other activity. How much time a horse spends eating is controlled by the amount of time they have to graze, type and availability of grass and plants, the horse's eating behavior, and their nutrient demand.

How much a horse eats and what they eat very important to their productivity and well-being. A horse's sense of taste plays an important role in what they choose to eat.

Horses are big animals and need to eat a lot.

Horses are big animals and need to eat a lot.

A Well Developed Sense of Taste

Horses have a preference towards things that taste sweet and salty. Like people, a horse has taste buds that help them perceive the way different things taste. They can easily differentiate between bitter, sour, sweet and salty. They avoid bitter and sour things.

Researchers believe that selective taste buds are designed to protect horses from ingesting toxic plants, and that may be the reason horses have an aversion to bitter tasting things.

The sense of taste, known as the gustatory sense in all animals, is an important component of the dietary information and is necessary for their very survival. Smell and taste are perceived through three sensory receptors in the head of a horse.

Horses can graze for 10 hours a day

Horses can graze for 10 hours a day

How Does It Work?

A horse has the same kind of taste buds as people do; they are just located in a different place. A person’s taste buds are on the front and sides of the tongue. A horse’s taste buds are located on their tongue, on their soft palate on the roof of their mouth, and on the back of their throat, which tells them whether something is tasty or poisonous.

Horses have to be especially cautious about what they ingest, because unlike other animals, they are not able to vomit up their food. A horse’s taste buds are onion shaped with chemoreceptors and other cells grouped together to form small sensitive projections or papillae.

Substances that are able to be dissolved in the oral fluids that keep the mouth moist, and food that is mixed with saliva, reach the tiny taste buds where action potentials are generated in the sensory nerves of the receptor cells, to signal the brain, where the brain interprets the information.

Liquids and foods go over the tongue and are either accepted or rejected. Horses have an innate preference for salty food and seem to like sweet things, too. They don’t like bitter or sour food.

Horses use their sense of taste to tell the difference between toxic plants and edible plants

Horses use their sense of taste to tell the difference between toxic plants and edible plants

Smell and Taste are Linked

How food tastes to a horse is influenced not just by its flavor, but by its odor and texture.

The ability to smell and taste is a complicated process that initiates the chemosensation system and stimulates nerve cells in the nose, the throat, and the mouth that then transmit messages to the brain. The tastes buds in the mouth and the epiglottis of a horse react to the food and liquids when they are mixed with saliva.

It is the small surface bumps on the tongue that make up the taste buds and send information to the neurons, which pass this information on to the brain.

Human beings are omnivores, meaning we eat both meat and vegetables. We have approximately 8,000 to 10,000 taste buds on our tongue. These taste buds are regenerated every 10 to 14 days. Horses are herbivores, and have approximately 25,000 taste buds.

Science has studied the fossils of horses going back 55 million years and have determined that horses, even back then, were grazing herbivores. In the evolution of the horse, the first 35 million years, these ancient animals were much smaller than today’s horse. They had a relatively small body. From 20 million years ago to the present, their body size became more diversified.

Studies have also shown that present-day wild horses, and other animals in the horse family, such as zebras, donkeys, mules, etc., show a preference for grazing on grasses and browsing on shrubs, trees, plants, and bushes. Scientists believe this is done to balance the macro nutrients like energy, protein, water, etc., that horses need for their mineral and vitamin requirements.

It is believed that horses developed a sweet tooth because finding sweet things in nature would put on more fat on the horses and help them get through the times there was less to eat.

Do Horses Know What is Nutritionally Good?

Horses can appear picky about their food. But anything that smells and tastes unusual, including water from a different bucket, may cause the horse to refuse the food or water. Horse stomachs are very sensitive to bacteria, mold, algae, and slime.

When there is plenty of grass and forage to graze on, horses will avoid going near unusual plants. Their taste buds can sense subtle differences in the mineral content of water, and may refuse to drink it because has an unfamiliar taste and smell to it.

In various science experiments to see if horses instinctively knew what was best for their nutritional needs, the results always showed that they do not. Horses selectively graze based on the tastiest grasses. They are not being selective because they know they need certain vitamins or other nutritional requirements.

Horses eat when they are hungry and drink when they are thirsty. They will avoid sour and bitter foods, and prefer things that taste salty and sweet. When grazing, they look to avoid toxic plants and graze based on taste, texture, and young rather than mature plants.

Horses are Grazing Animals

A horse's sense of taste helps them pick certain feeds over others. When grazing, wild horses will select different types of forage, which is probably based on taste. Taste may also play a role in caloric intake.

Horses have a high sodium requirement and to satisfy this they may gravitate towards foods that are more salty. Horses require salt to replace electrolytes they lose. When a horse gets hot in warm weather, and their activity level increases, their salt needs increase also. Horses that are dehydrated and have low salt concentration may not think clearly.

Horses graze night and day. They are designed this way, and take a few minutes to rest. As they graze on grass, their constant chewing produces acid their digestive tract muscles, which protect them from getting colic.

Horses that graze this way don't overeat and don't get overweight. What a horse eats, their digestive system gets used to. If the quantity or type of food changes all of a sudden, the horse can become prone to digestive disorders or other health issues.

Horse Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How Many Eyelids Does a Horse Have?
    • one
    • two
    • three
  2. An Equid Hybrid is
    • another name for hors
    • Equid hybrids are, as the name tactfully suggests, hybrid animals that are bred from the three equid species—zebras, don
    • any animal that is a herbivore
  3. The horse is the state animal of
    • New Jersey
    • Oklahoma
    • Kansas

Answer Key

  1. three
  2. Equid hybrids are, as the name tactfully suggests, hybrid animals that are bred from the three equid species—zebras, don
  3. New Jersey

How the Sense of Taste Keeps a Horse Healthy

Taste plays a role in a mare and her foal bonding. When two horses groom each other, taste may also play a role. Taste appears to be connected to the social connection between horses.

Taste helps to regulate the digestive processes such as their enzymatic secretions. A horse's appetite is determined by their pre-gastric stimuli, tasted, texture, and smell. How much they eat is very much influenced by taste.

Horses require a lot of water to drink. According to a Tufts University study done in 2006 by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the typical horse requires at least a gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight each day.

How much water a horse needs depends on their size, their activity, the weather, how much they have eaten, when they last drank, and whether the horse is pregnant or not.

According to a study done in 1991 by Marinier and Alexander, horses are very accurate in discriminating between safe and toxic plants. Horses that have gotten sick from eating certain food will learn to avoid it in the future.

Horses use their sense of taste to recognize other horses

Horses use their sense of taste to recognize other horses

Horses "Eat Like a Horse"

Horses use their sense of sight, smell, touch, and taste when choosing which foods to consume. Taste is the dominant sense that will influence which feeds or forage the horse chooses.

The odor of food plays a minor role in which food the horse chooses. They use their vision to find forage or perhaps see something that makes them investigate. Horses will choose leaves over stems. They like succulent over dry. But a hungry horse will tend to be less choosy.

Horses have large appetites. They are big and active animals and it takes a lot of food to nourish a creature so large. So when someone says you eat like a horse, it might be time to evaluate what you are consuming.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.