Can Sheep Eat Horse Feed? Is it Safe?

If you live on a homestead or a farm with lots of different animals running around, you probably already know that, from time to time, different critters are going to get into each other’s food. No matter how hard you try, that’s just the way it is.

a sheep with its tongue out
“Don’t feed me horse feed, human!”

And even when it comes to our sheep, who are usually entirely content to munch on grass and hay, don’t doubt for a second that they will swipe feed from their neighbors. And speaking of, how about horse feed? Horses are herbivores too, so can sheep eat horse feed safely?

No, horse feed is not safe for sheep on any kind of ongoing basis. Though sheep and horses both eat plants, horse feed is not nutritionally balanced or compatible with ruminant biology. A little bit shouldn’t hurt sheep, but don’t make a habit of it.

This is one of those issues that people tend to blow out of proportion one way or the other. Some folks incorrectly and disastrously assert that sheep can eat horse feed because it is vegetarian in nature and sheep are also vegetarians.

Others assume that even a little bit of horse feed could hurt them. Both are incorrect, and the truth actually lies somewhere in the middle.

I’ll tell you what you need to know about horse feed as it pertains to the health of your sheep in the rest of this article.

Do Sheep Like Horse Feed?

Yes, generally. Horse feed has lots of ingredients that sheep find palatable and tasty, and they will rarely waste any time in swiping some if they have access to it.

Also, horse feed is often sweetened with molasses or other ingredients, and sheep, like other livestock, definitely have a sweet tooth and that will make it extra attractive to them.

Don’t let sheep get unfettered access to horse feed under any conditions because they will gorge on it!

Is It Nutritious for Sheep?

Yes, in a way, but practically it isn’t. Horse feed contains many of the same ingredients and ultimately many of the same nutrients that cheap need, including protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and more, along with plenty of vitamins and minerals, but the problem is that it has them in different amounts compared to the foods that sheep should ideally eat.

So even though sheep can eat the stuff, and get some energy and other nutrients from it, it’s not going to be anywhere near as efficient as a food source and this will certainly result in nutritional imbalance over time.

Said another way, you can probably keep sheep alive using horse feed, but they’ll never thrive if they are forced to eat it.

Sheep Shouldn’t Eat Horse Feed

Digging a little deeper into the issue of serving horse feed to sheep, we find that there are very good reasons why your flock should avoid it.

Obviously, horse feed is for horses, not sheep, but one persistent complaint I hear about the assertion is that because both animals are herbivores, their diet should be more or less compatible, right?

That’s nominally true on its surface, but looking deeper into the biology of both species shows this to be erroneous.

For starters, horses and sheep have entirely different digestive systems, systems that require different kinds of food in different quantities to ensure optimum processing and nutrition.

Sheep are ruminant animals, meaning they have what is commonly called a four-chambered stomach that is designed to ferment and break down food for maximum absorption of nutrition.

Ruminants are optimized for eating extremely fibrous and relatively low-nutrient food like grasses, hay and things like that.

Non-ruminant animals with a typical stomach, such as horses, eat and digest food much more similarly to people, and there is no real fermentation that takes place in the digestive tract.

Horse Feed Will Cause Serious Nutritional Imbalances in Sheep

This isn’t just an academic difference, and the digestive processes of each species mean that the processing of food and extraction of nutrients, depending on the type of food, is very different, and this also influences the metabolic rates of each animal.

And, not for nothing, horses are far, far bigger and heavier compared to any sheep and accordingly they have a correspondingly massive calorie requirement.

Horse feed is designed and optimized for a horse’s biology, and provides a lot more calories a lot quicker compared to the things that sheep eat. Feeding this comparatively extremely rich food to sheep is going to set them up for massive digestive upset that can, in fact, be fatal in time.

So, if you want to “prove a point” by forcing your sheep to eat horse feed, one way or the other they will be facing serious health crises: malnutrition, bloat, potential poisoning from an overabundance of vitamins and minerals, or severe digestive upset that might actually prevent them from absorbing nutrients at all.

I promise it will end badly for your sheep.

A Little Won’t Hurt Your Sheep

I know I’m painting a grim picture of what will happen to your sheep if they eat horse feed, but let’s keep it in perspective.

If you spill a little bit of horse feed, or if your sheep manage to grab a bite of it when they’re walking by, probably nothing bad will happen to them. Don’t worry about it…

It’s not out of the question that it might cause them some indigestion or diarrhea, but even that is unlikely if they just get a mouthful or two.

The problems I described above are only likely to occur if they continually eat horse feed or if they get a huge serving, and especially if you make it a majority component of their diet as a replacement or supplement to all the things they should be eating.

As long as your sheep don’t get to eat it routinely, it shouldn’t cause them any harm and it isn’t overtly poisonous to them.

Spoiled Horse Feed Can Definitely Harm Sheep!

One thing you must be especially cautious of concerning horse feed, or any animal feed really, is the presence of mold.

Mold is bad, bad news when it comes to the health of our animals: there are even certain kinds of toxic mold that generate deadly poisons! These poisons can cause total respiratory collapse, paralysis, and organ damage if sheep eat them, and they are highly likely to be fatal even in small doses.

Even if your sheep manage to survive, they’ll probably be changed for life and not for the better. Accordingly, you must take care to prevent sheep from eating any moldy food of any kind and that includes horse feed that might have been lying around or stored improperly.

You should never use your animals as garbage disposals for any bad food, and least of all your sheep which have such sensitive stomachs!

How Often Can Your Sheep Eat This Feed Safely?

Again, nominally your sheep shouldn’t eat horse feed at all and you definitely shouldn’t make it a point of serving it to them, not even as a rare treat.

However, and I hesitate to say even this, if for whatever reason, your sheep have a regular opportunity to eat some horse feed you shouldn’t expect any major trouble if they just get a couple of mouthfuls no more than once or twice a week. Any more than that, though, will significantly increase the chances of causing digestive upset.

Is Horse Feed Safe for Lambs to Eat?

No, it isn’t. Although horse feed isn’t toxic for lambs in the same way that it isn’t toxic for sheep, lambs are just too delicate and have nutritional requirements that are too strict for horse feed to be good for them in any way. Even a little bit of horse feed can potentially make them very ill!

However, assuming the lamb is old enough to have weaned off of milk and is now eating solid food for the entirety or vast majority of its diet, if they manage to sneak a little bite of horse feed I wouldn’t expect any major trouble.

Still, I would definitely keep an eye out just in case. If you notice any signs of bloat, loss of appetite, or diarrhea, call a vet right away if the effects get worse.

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