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Cracking the Code: Understanding Wild Horse Diets

Wild Horses: Understanding Their Diet and Eating Habits

As one of the most iconic symbols of the American West, wild horses have long captivated the imaginations of people around the world. With their sleek bodies, flowing manes, and powerful nature, it’s no wonder that these majestic creatures have become part of the foundation of our national mythology.

Despite their enduring popularity, however, many people know surprisingly little about the daily lives of wild horses. In particular, few realize the vital role that diet plays in shaping their lives, from their movements to their overall health and wellbeing.

Here, we’ll explore the complex and fascinating world of wild horse diets, including the different components that make up their meals and the specific types of grasses, shrubs, and forbs they’re known to consume. We’ll also delve into the unique characteristics of grasses, which dominate wild horse diets, and explain how understanding these plants is essential to understanding the lives of wild horses.

The Components of Wild Horse Diet

At its most basic level, a wild horse’s diet consists of three main components: grasses, shrubs, and forbs. These elements vary depending on the horse’s location and the time of year, but they generally make up the bulk of what wild horses eat.


Of these components, grasses are the most important to wild horse diets and play a central role in shaping every aspect of their lives, from their growth and development to their movements and behavior.

Grasses are distinguished by their narrow leaves and parallel veins and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and types.

One of the most common grasses found in the wild horse diet is

Idaho fescue grass, which grows in semiarid regions across the western United States. Another is needle grass, which is most commonly found in foothills, meadows, and grasslands across the western United States.

Squirrel tail grass is another type of grass often eaten by wild horses. It is often found scattered across the open and arid regions of the West, including the Great Basin.

Another grass frequently consumed by wild horses is bluegrass, which is commonly found along ditches and streams. Great Basin wild rye is yet another type of grass that is important to the wild horse diet.

It is a staple in arid environments throughout the West, and its strength endures even during the driest times of year.


Shrubs are another important component of the wild horse diet and are known to supplement grasses when food sources are scarce. They are typically taller and more woody than grasses, with leaves that are either simple or compound.

Some of the most common shrubs in the wild horse diet include big and low sage, both of which are found in ecosystems across the Great Basin. Bitterbrush is another plant that wild horses sometimes consume; it is a small woody shrub with a strong fragrance that resembles the aroma of sage.

Juniper is another type of shrub that is sometimes consumed by wild horses. It is an evergreen plant that grows throughout the western United States and is frequently present in high-desert environments.

Greasewood is yet another shrub commonly eaten by wild horses, particularly when other food sources are scarce. It is a drought-resistant plant with leaves that turn grayish-green when the plant is under stress.

Saltbush is also consumed by wild horses, especially in coastal regions. It grows in the Great Basin areas and is a vital plant for livestock, wildlife, and wild horses.


The final component of the wild horse diet is forbs, which are herbaceous plants that grow in a variety of settings, including on poor soils, often in grasslands or forest clearings. One example of a forb is wild indigo, which is native to the Midwest and grows in a variety of habitats, including rocky bluffs and floodplains.

Another forb is the Indian paintbrush. It produces brightly colored red or yellow flowers and grows in mountain meadows and other open environments.



While wild horses consume a variety of plants, grasses are by far the most important component of their diet. As noted above, grasses are characterized by their narrow leaves and parallel veins and come in a range of shapes, sizes, and colors.

One of the most unique features of grasses is their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Grasses are able to become dormant during periods of drought and then reemerge when conditions improve.

They also have a remarkably efficient system for photosynthesis, which allows them to make the most of the sunlight they receive and grow quickly even in low-nutrient environments. Another important feature of grasses is their ability to form symbiotic relationships with other organisms.

Grasses are often intertwined with various fungi, which help the plants absorb nutrients from the surrounding soil. They are also frequently associated with various insects, which serve as pollinators and help to keep the plants healthy and thriving.


As we’ve seen, understanding the complexity of wild horse diets is an essential part of comprehending these iconic animals’ lives and behavior. By understanding the specific types of grasses, shrubs, and forbs that wild horses eat, as well as the unique characteristics of these plants, we can gain a better appreciation for these animals’ daily routines, nourishment needs, and overall health and wellbeing.

Armed with this knowledge, we can better appreciate and protect these majestic creatures for generations to come.

Shrubs: Woody Plants with Multiple Stems

In the wild horse’s diet, shrubs are another critical component to supplement the grasses as a supplemental source of nutrition.

Shrubs are woody plants with multiple stems that usually grow up to 4 meters in height.

They are often a valuable source of nutrients for wild horses, particularly during periods of low grass growth.

Shrubs are commonly found in dry or arid regions, and their adaptability to such environments has allowed them to thrive in different parts of the world. Here, we will delve into the different types of shrubs found in wild horse diets, as well as the unique characteristics that make shrubs a valuable component of a wild horse’s diet.

Types of

Shrubs Found in Wild Horse Diets

Big and Low Sage: Also known as sagebrush, this plant is endemic to the western United States and is commonly found in dry regions at higher elevations. Its strong aroma repels pests, which makes it an excellent food source for wild horses, especially during long droughts.

Bitterbrush: Bitterbrush is another plant that wild horses consume when grasses are scarce. These shrubs grow throughout the Western United States and are easy to recognize by their small leaves and strongly bitter taste.

Juniper: This evergreen shrub is native to regions in the Northern Hemisphere, including some parts of the United States. It is known for its fragrant smell and is commonly found in the Great Basin area.

The berries of the juniper plant are often consumed by wild horses. Greasewood: This drought-resistant and salt-tolerant shrub is common in desert regions of North America.

The plant has woody stems with small, thick green leaves and yellow flowers. Also known as black greasewood, it is known to be an essential food source for wild horses in the Western United States.

Saltbrush: Saltbrush, also known as orach or sea blite, belongs to the family of flowering plants known as the Amaranthaceae. The odorless saltbush is a dominant and reliable fodder plant in the Great Basin.

As the name indicates, it is salt-tolerant and is a food source of many wildlife species aside from wild horses. The Characteristics of


Woody plants are often long-lived and exhibit a variety of characteristics that help them thrive in the harsh environments they inhabit.

Some of the characteristics of shrubs include:

Multiple stems:

Shrubs usually have multiple stems that arise from the ground rather than a single main stem. This feature gives shrubs more flexibility and resilience to environmental changes.

Waxy surfaces: The thick leaves of shrubs have a waxy surface that reduces the loss of moisture and protects against damage from the sun’s rays. Deep roots:

Shrubs have deep roots that allow them to absorb water and nutrients from deep underground.

This helps them take full advantage of the limited rainfall in dry regions. Buds:

Shrubs have buds at the nodes, which help them regenerate growth in areas where the stems have been damaged.

The Importance of

Forbs in Wild Horse Diets

Forbs are herbaceous plants that have net-like veins and pretty flowers. They are classified based on their lifespan, which can be annual, biennial, or perennial.

Forbs are also an essential component of the wild horse diet, as they provide forage for horses that cannot obtain adequate nutrition solely from grasses and shrubs. Types of

Forbs Found in Wild Horse Diets

Wild Indigo: Wild indigo is a perennial herb that is found in the eastern region of North America.

It prefers well-drained soils and can tolerate a range of soil types. It has a deep root system that allows it to survive drought conditions.

Wild horses often feed on its leaves in the spring and summer. Indian Paintbrush: This biennial or perennial herb is native to North and South America.

Its bright red or yellow flowers bloom in the late spring and early summer. Indian paintbrush prefers well-drained soil and likes to grow in open, sunny areas.

The Characteristics of


Unlike grasses and shrubs, which usually dominate wild horse diets, forbs have distinct characteristics that make them unique. These characteristics include:

Net-like veins: The leaves of forbs have net-like veins, which are different from those of grasses that have parallel veins.

Life cycle:

Forbs have a lifecycle that can last from one to several years depending on the species. This means that they can provide wild horses with a consistent source of nutrition throughout the year.

Pretty flowers:

Forbs are typically known for their showy flowers, which come in a range of colors, from bright pink to deep reds and yellows. The flowers are also often used as decorative accents in gardens.


In conclusion, grasses, shrubs, and forbs each have unique characteristics that make them valuable components in the wild horse diet.

Grasses dominate their diet while shrubs and forbs are critical components that supplement their nutrition during periods of low grass growth.

Understanding these different types of plants is crucial to understanding wild horses’ daily lives and how they interact with their environment. With this knowledge, we can work towards protecting wild horses and their habitats for generations to come.

Area-Specific Wild Horse Diets: A Closer Look

As we have previously explored, grasses, shrubs, and forbs make up the bulk of wild horse diets, but the specifics of what they eat can vary according to their geographic location. Here, we’ll delve deeper into the diets of wild horses across the United States, including the specific plants they rely on to survive.


Wild horses in

Arizona feed on Indian wheat and various summer and winter forbs. The Indian wheat is an annual plant that grows during the cooler months and provides an important source of nutrition for horses as they prepare for winter.


Wild horses in

California have access to a range of grasses and shrubs to supplement their diets, including juniper, bitterbrush, big and low sage, bluegrass, squirreltail, needlegrass, and

Idaho fescue.


Wild horses in

Colorado commonly feed on sagebrush and pinion juniper, as well as bunchgrass and saltbush.


Wild horses in

Idaho feed on sagebrush in addition to threadgrass, Indian ricegrass, Thurber Needlegrass, and wheatgrass. These grasses are native to the region and often provide a crucial source of nutrition for horses.


Wild horses in

Montana-Dakotas have a unique diet that includes mountain mahogany shrub, which is a woody plant that produces tiny white flowers and is an important source of nutrition for horses.


Wild horses in

Nevada have access to a wide variety of plants in their diet. These plants include sagebrush, winterfat, pinon juniper, rabbitbrush, bluebunch grass, wheat grass, squirreltail, needlegrass, bottlebrush, bitterbrush, milkvetch (forb), arrowleaf balsamroot (forb), lupine (forb), phlox (forb), and aster (forb).

New Mexico

Wild horses in

New Mexico commonly feed on pinon-juniper, black grama,

New Mexico feather grass, blue grama, galleta, bottlebrush, squirreltail, Indian ricegrass, mountain mahogany, sand dropseed, and cholla.

Oregon and Washington

Wild horses in

Oregon and Washington have access to a range of plants, including sagebrush, bunchgrasses, cheatgrass, medusa head rye, bluebunch wheatgrass, Thurbers needle grass, bottlebrush, squirreltail, Sandberg bluegrass, and various forbs.


Wild horses in

Utah have a variety of plants available for their diet, including sagebrush, juniper, mountain fir, ricegrass, wheatgrass, bluegrass, squirreltail, and salt desert shrub.


Wild horses in

Wyoming eat sagebrush, greasewood, saltbrush, juniper, Indian ricegrass, wheatgrass, sedges, and needlegrass as part of their diets.

How Researchers Determine What Horses Eat in the Wild

Researchers who study wild horse diets rely on a technique called fecal analysis to determine what the horses are eating. This technique involves collecting fecal samples from wild horses and examining them to identify the types of plants, grasses, and shrubs that the horses have recently consumed.

The analysis can provide valuable insights into the plants that are most important for wild horses in different regions. What do Wild Horses Drink?

Wild horses drink from various sources of water, including streams, rivers, ponds, and puddles. In some regions, where water sources are scarce, wild horses are known to survive without drinking for several days in a row.

Drought conditions can be particularly challenging for wild horses, as their access to water sources is limited. What Kind of Meat Do Wild Horses Eat?

Wild horses are usually herbivorous, which means they mainly eat plants. However, researchers have reported that wild horses occasionally consume small amounts of meat, usually of animals found already dead.

This behavior is thought to be rare and is not a significant part of their diet. What do Wild Horses Eat in the Winter?

During the winter, wild horses often rely on shrubs as a significant portion of their diet, as grasses and other plants can be scarce. When snow covers the ground, wild horses may scrape it away to reach the dried

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