Skip to main content Accessibility help

Association in horses of orosensory characteristics of foods with their post-ingestive consequences

  • M. C. Cairns (a1), J. J. Cooper (a2), H. P. B. Davidson (a3) and D. S. Mills (a2)


In the domestic environment, horses are often presented with foods to which they are not evolutionarily adapted, such as low fibre pellets. Horses may not have the ability to learn the consequences of consuming unnatural foodstuffs and adapt their selection accordingly. This study aimed to investigate the horse’s feeding preferences when presented with concentrate pellets differing in nutrient content. Using a choice test, the relative preferences of 12 horses for mint and garlic, in iso-caloric diets, was first assessed over 29 meals. A mint preference, calculated as the proportion of mint in the total food intake, was shown by 11 horses. The horses were then divided into two groups, approximately balanced on the basis of mint preference. Group A was exposed to a choice of a mint-flavoured lower energy food or a garlic-flavoured higher energy food, while group B was exposed to mint-flavoured higher energy food and garlic-flavoured lower energy food for 29 meals. Next the flavours were presented in iso-caloric foods, initially for 10 meals, then a further 40, before the flavour-energy pairings were reversed for 30 meals. A final iso-caloric test was carried out for 30 meals. Both groups showed a preference for mint in the initial iso-caloric choice test but no such preference was shown in later iso-caloric tests. Both groups showed a higher preference for mint when paired with higher energy (proportion of mint intake to total intake was 0·75 (s.e.0·02) and 0·73 (s.e.0·02) for A and B respectively). Group B also showed a preference for garlic when paired with higher energy (proportion of mint intake: 0·32, s.e. 0·02) whilst group A showed a significant decrease in preference for mint when paired with lower energy (by 0·21 (s.e. 0·03), T = 6·88, P 0·01). The results suggest that horses can select a higher energy diet over a lower energy one and that horses can form associations between foods and their nutritional composition, even if they do not resemble those found in their natural environment.


Corresponding author

Corresponding author. E-mail:


Hide All
Archer, M. 1971. Preliminary studies on the palatability of grasses, legumes and herbs to horses. Veterinary Record 89: 236240.
Carpenter, J. A. 1956. Species differences in taste preferences. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 49: 139144.
Cassini, M. H. 1994. Behavioral mechanisms of selection of diet components and their ecological implications in herbivorous mammals. Journal of Mammalogy 75: 733740.
DiBattista, D. and Mercier, S. 1999. Flavor-calorie learning in the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). Journal of Comparative Psychology 113: 8184.
Dulphy, J. P., MartinRosset, W., Dubroeucq, H., Ballet, J. M., Detour, A. and Jailler, M. 1997. Compared feeding patterns in ad libitum intake of dry forages by horses and sheep. Livestock Production Science 52: 4956.
Forbes, J. M. 1999. Natural feeding behaviour and feed selection. In Regulation of feed intake (ed. M. Verstegen, W. A.), pp. 312. CAB Interntional Publishing, Oxon.
Frape, D. 1998. Equine nutrition and feeding, second edition. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
Galef, B. G. J. 1996. Social enhancement of food preferences in Norway rats: a brief review. In Social learning in animals: the roots of culture (ed. Heyes, L. M. and B. Galef, G. J.), pp. 4960. Academic Press, London.
Garcia, J., McKowan, B. K. and Green, K. F. 1972. A theory of taste-aversion learning — biological constraints on conditioning. In Biological boundaries of learning (Seligman, M.E. P. and Hager, J. L.), pp. 2043. Meredith Corporation, New York.
Gill, M., Beaver, D. E. and Osbourn, D. F. 1989. Feeding value of grass and grass products. In Grass: its production and utilization, second edition (ed. Holmes, W.), pp. 89129. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
Goatcher, W. D. and Church, D. C. 1970. Taste responses in ruminants. I. Reactions to sugars, saccharin, ethanol and salts. Journal of Animal Science 30: 777783.
Harris, P. A. 1999. How understanding the digestive process can help minimise digestive disturbances due to diet and feeding practices. Proceedings of the BEVA specialist days on behaviour and nutrition (ed. Harris, P. A. Gomarsall, G. M. Davidson, H. P. B. and Green, R. E.), pp. 4549. Equine Veterinary Journal Ltd, Newmarket.
Hirsch, E. 1973. Some determinants of intake and patterns of feeding in the guinea pig. Physiology and Behavior 11: 687704.
Houpt, K. A., Zahorik, D. M. and Swartzmanandert, J. A. 1990. Taste-aversion learning in horses. Journal of Animal Science 68: 23402344.
Illius, A. W. and Gordon, I. J. 1993. Diet selection in mammalian herbivores: constraints and tactics. In Diet selection: an interdisciplinary approach to foraging behaviour (ed. Hughes, R. N.), pp. 157181. Blackwell Scientific, Oxford.
Janis, C. 1976. The evolutionary strategy of the equidae and the origins of rumen and caecal digestion. Evolution 30: 757774.
Laut, J. E., Houpt, K. A., Hintz, H. F. and Houpt, T. R. 1985. The effects of caloric dilution on meal patterns and food intake of ponies. Physiology and Behavior 35: 549554.
Mills, D. and Nankervis, K. 1999. Equine behaviour: principles and practice. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
Owen, J. B. 1992. Genetic-aspects of appetite and feed choice in animals. Journal of Agricultural Science, Cambridge 119: 151155.
Provenza, F. D. 1995. Postingestive feedback as an elementary determinant of food preference and intake in ruminants. Journal of Range Management 48: 217.
Provenza, F. D. 1996. Acquired aversions as the basis for varied diets of ruminants foraging on rangelands. Journal of Animal Science 74: 20102020.
Provenza, F. D., Scott, C. B., Phy, T. S. and Lynch, J. J. 1996. Preference of sheep for foods varying in flavors and nutrients. Journal of Animal Science 74: 23552361.
Provenza, F. D., Villalba, J. J., Cheney, C. D. and Werner, S. J. 1998. Self-organization of foraging behaviour: from simplicity to complexity without goals. Nutrition Research Reviews 11: 199222.
Pyke, G. H. 1984. Optimal foraging theory: a critical review. Annual Review of Ecological Systems 15: 523575.
Robson, M. J., Parsons, A. J. and Williams, T. E. 1989. Herbage production: grasses and legumes. In Grass: its the production and utilization, second edition (ed. Holmes, W.), pp. 788. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
Roguet, C., Dumont, B. and Prache, S. 1998. Selection and use of feeding sites and feeding stations by herbivores: a review. Annales de Zootechnie 47: 225244.
Sclafani, A. 1995. How food preferences are learned — laboratory-animal models. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 54: 419427.
Sneddon, J. C. and Argenzio, R. A. 1998. Feeding strategy and water homeostasis in equids: the role of the hind gut. Journal of Arid Environments 38: 493509.
Thorne, C. J. 1995. Feeding behaviour of domestic dogs and the role of experience. In The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people (ed. Serpell, J.), pp. 103114. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Tyler, S. J. 1997. The behaviour and social organisation of the New Forest ponies. Animal Behaviour Monographs 5: 87196.
Wieren, S.E. van. 1996. Do large herbivores select a diet that maximizes short-term energy intake rate? Forest Ecology and Management 88: 149156.
Zahorik, D. M., Houpt, K. A. and Swartzman-andert, J. 1990. Taste aversion learning in three species of ruminants. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 26: 2739.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed