Dangerous Fall Leaves Your Horse Should Avoid

Did you know pasture grass can lose nutritional value as the seasons grow cooler? Though you may not know it from the outside.

While most tree leaves typically undergo a more visually significant transition in autumn, grass may not. Even if it doesn’t change colors right away, the internal structure of the plant has begun to shift. The process ends with an increase in health-adverse nonstructural carbohydrates (NCS).

Grass generally remains safe for horses to eat year-round. However the same isn’t true of many seemingly innocuous wilted tree leaves.

Find out how subtle changes in forage can drive equine toward potentially dangerous fall foliage. We’ll also cover which plants to avoid and signs you might have a problem.

Why Fallen Leaves can Spell Trouble

Even if your horse is eating the same quantity of forage, if the pasture has dipped in nutritional quality, it may fail to satiate them. Overgrazing is often a result. In this process, a horse may be inclined toward plants, which they might otherwise avoid.

In fall and winter months this can be exceptionally dangerous. Cooler temps and freezes are known to drive up poisons like Gallic acid and cyanide in wilting leaves.

Couple this with the fact that horses are attracted to fallen leaves and you see where there’s potential for trouble. The smell draws them in; the taste drives their frenzy. If you have a hungry horse who’s looking to snack on any plants they can get their hooves on, that pile of freshly raked leaves or mound of grass clippings could present a real problem.

It’s one of the reasons properly disposing of fallen foliage is so critical. A compost pile or section of land well outside the pasture can help prevent digestive upset, or accidental poisoning.

Another way to avoid overgrazing on fallen leaves is to supply your team a steady supply of high-quality horse feed. Doing so will help you meet their nutrient requirements, while nourishing their sensitive GI tracts.

Foliage to Avoid, Always  

Think most trees are safe for horses? Think again. It’s important to get to know the trees around your pasture. Use apps like Pl@ntNet, a ‘Shazam for Plants,’ or books to help you identify all species your horse might gain access to.

If you see any of the following, take steps to keep your horse as far away from their foliage as possible.

Take Maples for example. These trees are plentiful in the U.S. and Canada, especially in the eastern portions of the country. Though their leaves are generally fine while alive and on the branch, they become extremely poisonous once they begin wilting. The presence of Gallic acid in red maple leaves, specifically, can quickly breakdown red blood cells and lead to hemolytic anemia. Those high concentrations spike after mid-September and can lead to death within days of ingestion.

Trees in the Prunus family number nearly 200. The leaves on Cherry trees, known as stone fruit trees, become especially toxic as they wilt. However, the twigs, bark, and pits from Prunus plants all contain cyanide. Among the entire group, wild species like choke cherries and black cherries are considered the most dangerous.

Black Walnut trees may grow naturally around your pasture, depositing leaves as seasonal winds increase. They may also sneak into stalls disguised as bed shavings. Within 24 hours of exposure toxicity occurs. Though most horses do eventually recover with proper treatment. If you suspect exposure, remove stall shavings and immediately contact your vet for an emergency visit. Keep the horse comfortable until he or she arrives by cooling the legs and hooves.

You should also be sure to trim back branches of Oak trees to ensure your horse can’t reach their leaves. Include acorns in your collection efforts to avoid serious issue. Use fencing to cordon off smaller or younger varieties. If you find the tree is shedding a substantial amount of leaves or acorns, section off that portion of the pasture so horses can’t access it. Regular leaf expulsion is also recommended.

Other common plants that are poisonous to horses can present year-round challenges, so do your research before putting them out to pasture.

Signs You Have a Problem

Keep close watch over your horse, especially as the seasons- and leaves- begin to change. Should you spot any of the following, contact your vet immediately. If you can collect a sample of the plant in question, you’ll have a better chance at treatment.

  • Increased heart and respiration rates
  • Red mucus membranes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shock
  • Excess salivation
  • Muscle tremors
  • Laminitis and reluctance to move
  • Fever
  • Limb edema
  • Increased gut sounds
  • Jaundice
  • Dark colored urine
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Severe depression
  • Yellow around whites of the eyes

Ultimately, no matter how beautifully fall foliage decorates your pasture, never forget that many wilted leaves have the potential to harm your horse.

Courtesy of Muenster Milling