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.
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.
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
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.
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Jennifer Kimrey earned her bachelor's degree in English writing and rhetoric from St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. She's a regular contributor to the "Houston Chronicle" and her work has appeared on Opposing Views Cultures, The Austin American-Statesman, The Red Vault, The Western Vault and various other websites and publications.