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Poison In The Pasture

Every horse owner is aware of the dangers of poisoning. But most think of poisoning in the terms of toxic chemicals — not the natural ones found growing in pastures, fields, along fence lines, in front and back yards or lining driveways.

Several years back a friend called to tell me of the death of a newborn foal. The mare alone had sent them back in dollars and she along with the foal produced were to become the ‘cornerstones’ of their ranching business.

Never a day passed that they didn’t check on the mare. Inoculations were kept current, wormings were routinely given and when in foal, the slightest runny nose found the vet driving to their barn. The vet joked he should “bill ’em in mileage, not service”. And when the foal was born, the whole event was video recorded and the “little stud was going to be world-famous — someday”.

Upon arriving home one evening they found the mare standing by the gate into the barn. The foal stretched on the ground beside. Odd they thought, the foal usually stayed away from the gate. They rushed to the mare and found the foal — dead.

No signs of trauma on the body. Nothing like a dog attack and the mare was an excellent mother. Protecting the little guy and even chasing a wayward jackrabbit from the field on day when it hopped too close to her baby!

Since there were no signs of disease or injury, the vet asked if they would object to an autopsy. They agreed. A few days later when they heard the results — they pulled up all the plants along the driveway, near the pond and those growing along the road. To be exact, oleander poisoning had killed the two-month-old foal.

It was not unusual to see the mare with foal lying in the grass around the bright pink and red bushes. Or see the mare grazing with baby nibbling at the grass and even once, playfully dragging a broken oleander branch around the pasture.

Today, not a single oleander brush grows anywhere on the property! And as my friend stated, “We were stupid. We bought the place with all these bushes but not once did we find out IF the plants were toxic to horses. When we talked to the real estate agent, he said the landscaper put them in and even he didn’t know what was and what wasn’t toxic when it comes to horses. If we’d have done some investigating, we would still have that baby.”

Normally horses won’t eat poisonous plants. But during summer months when pasture grasses turn dry and brown or when the pasture is overgrazed, hungry horses will eat anything they can find. Often grasses found around irrigated landscape plants or irrigation systems contain dangerous weeds along with those blades of succulent grass. And a young, nosey horse will often try something ‘different’ to just see what it tastes like.

Did YOU know that the fragrant flowering shrub from which we get perfume — jasmine — is death to horses? So are larkspur, bluebonnet, creeping ivy and buttercup — all popular landscape plants. Even the leaves of oak trees are toxic is eaten in large enough quantities.

The critical point with any toxic plant is ‘if eaten in large enough quantities’. But what is a ‘large enough quantity’?. A foal can nibble a few stems of lily of the valley and die. A full-grown horse may eat a whole plant and not become ill. Or one animal may consume a gallon of oak leaves with grass while an older horse may suffer a toxic reaction and die after just a few mouthfuls.

The answer to avoiding plant poisoning in any quantity is to first learn what plants are toxic. A call to the county agent will provide that information. Plus there are numerous publications one can find such as “A Guide to Plant Poisoning of Animals in North America” [order from or Two Horse Enterprises]. This 350-page book provides pictures of plants plus breaks toxic plants down into ten chapters with clinical toxic signs for each. And don’t expect every landscaper or gardener to know what is and what isn’t toxic to horses. Most have never researched the topic even though they plant and cut along private horse property every day.

The best method to toxic plant prevention is for the HORSE OWNER to KNOW what plants are toxic and what plants are not!!

Once a plant is determined to be toxic, the next step is to get rid of it! Simply cutting it off will NOT get rid of it. The plant will simply grown back. And with some plants, roots can go three or four deep and crisscross the subsoil. So the best method is to dig it out. Get down on hands and knees and DIG. Follow the main stem and then its roots. Once the plant is out, fill the hole back in and then make a little mark on a pasture map of where it was found so one can keep an eye on that spot in the coming months. If it resprouts, dig it up again. Remember when digging those plants up that you’re not only keeping your horse healthy but those walks around the pasture carrying a hoe to do a little ‘pasture gardening’ is a great way to start a ‘fitness program for riding’!

There are a number of chemicals on the market that kill weeds but NEVER SPRAY A PASTURE unless you are POSITIVE the substance will not harm livestock. That’s any livestock — horses, foals, ponies, rabbits, squirrels and even cats and dogs for they occasionally ‘graze grass’.

When landscaping or re-landscaping near a pasture or barn make certain all plants to go into the ground are livestock safe. Select plants that are both easy to use and care for plus non-toxic. And when buying property, never assume the developer or builder knows what is non-toxic. A large, new housing development not far from where I board my horses was advertised as “ranchettes for horse owners”. Whiteboard fences lined property lines and along the streets, young plants of jasmine and yew sprouted happily!

A horse will not eat oak leaves, ragweed, milkweed, pigweed, castor beans, laurel or other toxic plants in its normal grazing pattern unless there is nothing else to eat! A horse eats toxic plants when it’s hungry. The horse with adequate pasture and supplemental feeding when the pasture is dry will simply walk over or around toxic weeds and continue looking for what he really likes — good old-fashioned grass!

You can read my full bio here

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Poison In The Pasture