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Differences in the appearance and temperament of many horse breeds are obvious. Now, researchers have found evidence of different taste preferences between breeds, although carrots and apples appear to be standout favorites across the board.
They also observed different flavor preferences between the sexes, with mares standing out as having a sweeter tooth than stallions.
The study team from the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland, used 48 adult horses — stallions and mares in equal numbers — for their research. They were Arabian, Anglo-Arabian, Polish Konik and Polish cold-blooded horses, all aged over 5.
Izabela Wilk and her colleagues, writing in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, said horses liked to eat various plants but avoided some as being unpalatable, indigestible or poisonous.
Horses, they said, had become accustomed to various feeds after being domesticated, some of which they would never have sourced in their wild state.
“The choice of feed by one-hoofed animals depends not only on its taste, but also on its texture and smell, because only when these three qualities are combined can horses receive full information on the feed that they eat.”
In the experiment, five types of industrially processed pelletized feeds were used based on oats combined with natural dried products commonly regarded as flavorsome horse treats.
The five pelletized feeds each comprised half oats, with the other half made up of either dried sour apples, dried sweet dessert apples, dried carrots, dried sugarbeet molasses, or barley with 2% added salt.
The different feeds were offered to each horse in five buckets lined up along the wall of their stall on three consecutive days. The order of the feeds was changed for each day.
The behavior of the horses during the experiment was filmed and later scored.
The authors took note of the sequence in which each horse consumed the pellets, the time they took to become interested in them, and the time taken to eat each one, as well as behaviors which pointed to their preferences.
These included sniffing, whether the feed was fully eaten, whether the horse walked away at some point, whether it spat out the feed, drooled, or kept approaching a bucket even after it had finished the contents.
Taste preferences varied depending on breed and sex.
“Feed with apples or carrots was the favourite treat,” they reported. “The horses ate them most quickly and recorded the best behaviour scores (showed most interest) during their consumption.”
However, it was clear that horse behaviour suggesting an interest in a feed should not be taken as proof of its tastiness, with pellets chosen first not necessarily eaten the fastest. “This may be associated with individual preferences or with a current demand for specific nutrients,” they suggested.
Pellets containing molasses were consumed more willingly by mares than by stallions. Mares, they found, were most likely to choose feed with carrots added, whereas the first choice of stallions tended to be sour apple.
Mares, in contrast to stallions, were more likely to choose a sweet taste.
“The fact that sugar was consumed more willingly by mares than by stallions should not be surprising,” they wrote, pointing to research linking it to hormonal balance in females, with estrogen influencing the amount and type of feed consumed.
“At the same time, the findings of our study showed that although mares preferred the sweet taste, it should not be too distinct. This was indicated by the fact that the mares consumed carrot pellets more willingly than sugarbeet pellets.”
Breed-related differences related particularly to the sugar beet molasses pellets (in which Polish cold-blooded horses showed less interest than the other breeds) and the salted cereal pellets (in which both the Polish Konik and Polish cold-blooded horses showed less interest than the others).
All horses generally showed less interest when consuming sugarbeet molasses and the salted cereal pellets.
Stallions, in particular, showed less interest when consuming sugarbeet pellets, and mares showed significantly less interest in two kinds – sugarbeet and barley with salt.
Among breeds, Arabians showed less interest in the sugarbeet and sweet-apple pellets, while Anglo Arabs had a lesser interest in the beet and cereal pellets
The typical behaviour of most breeds was approaching the buckets immediately, smelling them, and starting to eat the feed.
However, quite distinctive behaviours were seen in the Polish Konik horses. They hesitated briefly before approaching the buckets, smelling them, and then eating.
This, the study team said, was probably caused by the distinct primitivism of this breed, most likely linked to a particular caution in consuming unknown feeds.
“One thing is certain,” they concluded. “Feed with apples or carrots should be preferred as treats for horses, regardless of their sex or breed.” Indeed, feeds with apples or carrots were the favourite treats of all tested breeds in the study.
“Intensely sweet feeds should be the last option as a treat,” they suggested.
“Regardless of the sex, the horses first became interested in the feeds with sour apple and carrot pellets.
The greatest variety in pellet taste preferences was found among purebred Arabians.
The full study team comprised Iwona Janczarek, Izabela Wilk, Sławomir Pietrzak, Marta Liss and Sylwester Tkaczyk.
Taste preferences of horses in relation to their breed and sex
Iwona Janczarek, Izabela Wilk, Sławomir Pietrzak, Marta Liss and Sylwester Tkaczyk.
The abstract can be read here.