What flavors do horses prefer? Not those you might expect, according to a study from England. In taste tests conducted at the University of Southampton, fenugreek (an herb often used in curry dishes), banana and cherry topped the list of flavors preferred by horses, ahead of more traditional fare, such as carrot and peppermint.
In the first phase of the study, which lasted for 16 days, eight horses received their usual forage every day along with six small portions of feed, each infused with a different flavor. How much of each flavored feed was consumed and over what period of time was observed and recorded.
Of the 15 flavors, only 12 were eaten by all the horses. In the study's second phase, the eight flavored meals that had been eaten most quickly were then presented to the horses two at a time in all combinations to discern which they liked best.
Analysis of the final data showed that the top eight flavors were, in order of preference, fenugreek, banana, cherry, rosemary, cumin, carrot, peppermint and oregano.
By modern standards the results may be surprising, but a review of different cultures and historical records suggests that equine predilections are fairly consistent, says Deborah Goodwin, PhD, who headed the study.
"In India horses are routinely offered bananas, and the Greeks and Romans fed fenugreek to horses," she says. "In the United Kingdom when horses worked the land, fenugreek and cumin were used to encourage fussy eaters to eat their food."
Goodwin's work may eventually lead to the formulation of tastier rations for horses, but she says she hopes it may ultimately have health benefits as well: "We know from previous work that horses prefer variety in their forage ration. Yet owners vary the concentrate ration with great caution due to concerns over colic. This work suggests that by varying just the flavor of an otherwise identical diet we may be able to provide the variety horses need without changing the nutritional content of the diet."
This article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of EQUUS magazine.