Trees and Shrubs Make a Good Addition to Pastures as Fodder for Horses

Image alt.
Image alt. Photographer name

Newsdate: Wed 17 June 2015 - 10:10 am
Location: SAN DIEGO, California

Trees and shrubs can be an important component of good pastures when chosen carefully and with consideration of what will work in a specific area and to the advantage of the horse owner and the horses.

Horse eating tree leaves

Horse eating tree leaves

Adding trees and shrubs in and around pastures can be beneficial for a number of reasons; it not only plays a major role in the hydration of the land and the control of erosion, but it can also provide shade, shelter and fodder.

It is important to not over plant and totally shade your pasture, select species that are non-toxic and select trees that suit your wet or dry site conditions.

The roots of trees and shrubs will further stabilize soil, reduce erosion and maintain water clarity, absorbing excess nutrients like nitrates from horse manure. The benefits to a horse include shelter from cold winter and dry summer winds, reduced exposure to sun further decreasing stress to your horse and providing a more comfortable living environment.

The leaf litter provided by trees and shrubs as they drop their leaves each fall, improves the soil fertility of your pasture, resulting in improved nutrient uptake by your horse.

Adding trees and shrubs in and around pastures can be beneficial for a number of reasons; it not only plays a major role in the hydration of the land and the control of erosion, but it can also provide shade, shelter and fodder. Many people are familiar with feeding tree and shrub forage to livestock but most horse owners know very little about the use of fodder tree and shrub for horses.

Generally, the best place to plant trees for horse health is just outside the perimeter of the pasture, although shrubs make a great addition within pastures. Planting native trees and shrubs as opposed to ornamental varieties is important, as they benefit the natural ecosystem and are generally resistant to insect pests and disease.

Nutritive value of forage trees and shrubs for horses

Forage trees and shrubs must have nutritive value to be useful as forage. The nutritive value of trees and shrubs forage is determined by its ability to provide the nutrient required by an animal to balance requirements.

Tree and shrub forage have been primarily used as feed for ruminants (cattle, goats, sheep), although there are some reports of their inclusion in the diet of non-ruminants (poultry and pigs). There is not much known about the feeding value and palatability of tree and scrub forage for horses. Most of the reports on plants and trees focus on the toxicity for horses.

When selecting forage trees and shrubs you must take into account that you may find limited information about the use of trees and shrubs for horses, moreover there are many contradictions in the literature regarding the acceptability of fodder from trees and shrubs. This may be explained by the following aspects:

  • Acceptability can change during the year. Animals may select only young leaves. With maturing of the leave the secondary compounds may increase and animals may not like the taste of the leaves anymore.
  • In some cases it may take some time for animals to accept a new feed, but once accustomed they may consume it readily.
  • Preference for one feed over another does not mean that they will not eat it when it is the choice is limited.
  • Within a single species, differences can exist between varieties, individual trees and even between parts of the same tree. Acceptability can be influenced by climate and soil conditions.
  • There is limited information about the nutritive value, palatability and toxicity of various parts of plants for horses.

Benefits and selection of forage trees and shrubs for horses

Trees and shrubs can potentially supplement the quantity and quality of pastures for grazing horses. They can function as a substitute when there is seasonal shortage or risk of drought. Tree fodder systems also deliver additional benefits such as shelter, soil conservation, rough timber and habitat.

There are various trees and shrubs that horses can safely browse. The leaves, stems, pods and fruits can be used as a supplement to their other feed. Tree and shrub fodder as a sole diet is not suitable for horses.

More research is necessary to determine the feed value and even the toxicity levels for horses. Moreover, like with many other feed products, gradually introduce you horse to the fodder and don’t over feed

In some areas, Conservation Authorities offer native tree and shrub planting programs at cost and will provide you with advice on species selection suitable to your watershed and beneficial to your horse.

Horses thrive in pastures that have shrubs that provide plenty of foliage and shade. Some shrubs are better suited for horses than others, though; some poisonous shrubs can make their way into otherwise safe horse pasture foliage. Introducing the right kinds of shrubs to a pasture, and properly maintaining them will help keep your horses well-fed, cool and in good health.

Black Hawthorn

Also known as the Douglas hawthorn, the black hawthorn shrub is not only nontoxic to horses, but it provides ample food and cover for the animals, tolerates a wide range of environments and conditions, and supports better erosion and hydration control for pastures. A black hawthorn shrub can grow to 35 feet and sports smooth, large, dark green leaves that are serrated at the ends. The shrub's flowers bloom into globe-shaped blossoms, and its fruits are deep red or black. The shrub does have short thorns, but they typically don't affect horses or other livestock. Horses will find plenty of cover beneath a black hawthorn shrub, and they will happily munch on accessible leaves and twigs -- both of which are safe for horses.


A saltbush shrub is often mistaken for sagebrush; however, this drought-tolerant plant is actually related to tumbleweed. The shrub doesn't actually like a lot of water, making it a great feature in horse pastures located in dry, desertlike climates. While this grayish-white shrub is fairly small, growing to heights of only 2 or 3 feet, saltbush is actually a highly nutritious source of minerals for horses and other livestock -- so much so, in fact, that its nickname is "cattle spinach."

The leaves of saltbush plants have salty deposits on them, which is how the shrub gets its name. Saltbush leaves make great foraging food for horses, providing tasty, nutrient and accessible fodder.

Bitter Pea

Found in most states, the bitter pea is a group of shrubs that belong to the Fabacea (pea) family. Bitter pea shrubs are particular favorites of horses; their fruits have a bitter yet pleasant flavor that horses like. In the article "Forage Trees and Shrubs for Horses," Mariette van den Berg, an expert in equine nutrition, says, "horses prefer the leaves and young twigs of two kinds of species [of bitter pea]; Clustered bitter pea (Daviesia corymbosa) and Hop bitter pea (Daviesia latifolia)."

The thick, bushy plant not only provides an ample amount of tasty fodder for horses, but it also provides an adequate amount of shade, growing between 3 and 9 feet high.

Other recommended shrubs and trees

While the black hawthorn, saltbush and bitter pea plants are some of the most tolerant, relatively common shrubs in the United States suitable for horses, plenty of other shrubs are acceptable as well.

Crape myrtle shrubs are colorful, flowering shrubs that provide substantial shade for horses and can be pruned to a variety of shapes and sizes. Hagbrier is a deciduous shrub that blooms in the spring and summer, providing plenty of horse fodder.

Texas sage, also known as scarlet sage, is a dense shrub that blooms purple blossoms and provides food and cover for horses. The ASPCA provides a thorough list of toxic and nontoxic plants suitable for horses, ranging from small plants and shrubs to trees.

Trees and shrubs NOT recommended for horse pastures

Some examples of native and non native trees NOT recommended around your pasture are red maple (Acer rubrum), Cherry (Prunus sp) and Black Locust (Robinia pseudocacia) due to their toxicity to horses and other livestock.

Other dangerous trees include oaks (Quercus sp), horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), pine (Pinus sp) and yew (taxus sp). If you already have some of these trees on your property and they are small enough, simply transplant them out of your horses reach. If they are too large, fencing around them or re-aligning pasture fencing is a simple solution to protect your equine friends.

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying  up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere..