While most people keep their horses separate from cattle there are some that graze them together but is this really a good idea? This is something that I hadn’t thought about until one of my friends moved her horses to pasture that was being used by cows, but having researched this I was surprised by what I found.
Do horses and cows get on? Yes, horses and cows can and do live happily together, they are both habitual grazers so make great companions although they do require slightly different management. For example, cattle feed can be toxic to horses, and cow safe fencing, such as barbed wire, isn’t suitable for horses.
Before the last Ice Age wild horses happily lived alongside wild cattle (known as aurochs), bison, deer, and even wooly rhinos so they very clearly can graze together but that doesn’t mean to say that you can just turn them out together and forget about them. While they’re both grazers and do have a lot of similarities they are also very different animals that have different needs that must be met.
What are the pros of grazing horses and cows together?
It might seem strange to think about horses and cows grazing together but, when it’s done properly it can be beneficial for all parties, including you!
Cows can provide good companionship for horses
While there is no doubt horses prefer to have the company of other horses this isn’t always possible and there’s a very valid argument that it’s better to have a non-horse companion than no companion at all but cows can be much more than substitute horses.
Horses are more susceptible to stress than cows are but having the security of the herd means that the horse will feel much safer. Cows are also very curious creatures so will alert the horse to any danger they may have spotted. While this might not seem like it matters it’ll make the world of difference to your horse.
They can help to control worms for each
Both horses and cows can suffer from parasitic worms but thankfully the worms are generally host-specific so there’s no chance of them being bothered by each other’s worms. On top of this cows will ingest horse worm larvae and eggs which will therefore reduce the number that horses will eat. Likewise, horses provide the same service for cows.
This was recently proved by a 2020 French study that found horses that were grazing with cows didn’t need to be dewormed as often and had a fecal egg count that was approximately half that of horses that didn’t share their pasture with cattle. [source]
It’s a good way on managing the pasture
Horses are fussy eaters that like to eat in their favorite spots while completely ignoring the areas they don’t like as much whereas cows, on the other hand, are indiscriminate eaters and will move around the pasture eating as they go. This means that the whole field is grazed evenly which makes it less likely you’ll need to mow the grass yourself.
On top of this horses have upper and lower incisor teeth which means that they’re able to ‘cut’ the grass really low to the ground, although they’ll leave the grass around any manure piles. Cows only have lower incisors so aren’t able to eat the grass as low to the ground, instead, they use their tongues to almost rip the grass that’s around medium length. This, combined with their aimless grazing, means they’ll eat all of the grass around the manure.
What are the cons of grazing horses and cows together?
As with everything in life, there are downsides to keeping cows with horses that, while are not necessarily a problem, do certainly need to be considered.
More flies and ticks
If you’ve spent any time around cows (even if only for a short period of time) you will have noticed just how many flies they have. While this can often be a problem for the cows it’s even more of a problem for horses due to their thinner skin.
The horn fly is one such fly that can be particularly problematic for horses. While they prefer cows they will happily ‘munch’ on any horses that are close and when you consider they can bite a horse around 30 times a day it’s easy to see how they can be an issue. In most cases, you can treat the cows for flies to reduce this problem.
The same fencing isn’t always suitable for them both
Cows have much thicker hides than horses and generally need stronger fencing which is why barbed wire is often used to keep cattle in place but this isn’t suitable (and can be harmful) for horses. This is probably the number one problem people who keep horses and cows together face. Many people have a barbed wire fence with a post and rail system so that horses can easily see the fencing.
You can also use an electric fence but it’s worth mentioning that a low voltage fence, is more than enough for horses, won’t be enough to hold cattle in the field. That said though, a high voltage fence should never be used around horses because they’re far more sensitive than cows.
They need different feed
While horses and cows can happily graze together (and even drink together if necessary) there are big differences in what they can eat and how their digestion works.
Horses aren’t able to store their food and have small stomachs which means they need to continually eat and need high-quality hay in order to get the nutrients they require. Cows, on the other hand, take much longer to digest their food and can get a lot of nutrition from poor-quality hay.
This means that haylage (or silage) isn’t suitable for horses and can even cause botulism. Cows are more than happy eating haylage though and aren’t so susceptible to botulism. While you can of course feed high-quality hay to cows the financial cost of this will soon add up.
The same goes for their feed too. Horses and cows both have different needs from their feed, horses are worked more than cows so need energy from their food while cows are used for milk and meat so need more bulk food. Some cow food, especially gran mix is also treated with medication such as monensin sodium which, while beneficial to cows is fatal to horses, even in very small doses.
With all this in mind, it’s better and far safer to separate horses and cows when it comes to feeding time.
Why do some horses chase cows?
As a general rule horses won’t chase cows if they’re turned out with them but, as with any rule, there will always be some exceptions. This is especially true with breeds, such as the Quarter Horse or Colorado Ranger, that have a strong cow sense. After all, they’ve been selectively bred for hundreds of years to bring out this natural instinct so it’s no wonder some horses will chase cattle they share a field with. I once had a Quarter Horse who used to do this with his previous owners. Apparently, he did it so often they had to move him to another field in the end.
There are also occasions when a bored horse may chase the cows around, not so much because he wants to round them up but because he just wants something to do. This often stops though when the horse is given something else to do or is exercised more.
Do horses and cows fight?
Animals tend to fight over food, mating rights, territory, or for survival and because horses and cows aren’t going to interbred or try and eat each other they’re not likely to fight. They’re also happy to live together and share their grazing so have no need to fight over this either.
That doesn’t mean to say that horses and cows will never fight though, there will always be animals that just don’t get on but this is more due to a difference in personality rather than anything else. This, however, is extremely rare because cows aren’t as smart as horses and will generally give into a horse’s bullying rather than fight them.
Can horses catch diseases from cows?
I know I’m stating the obvious but horses and cows are genetically very different animals and as such don’t share many diseases. That said though there are a few diseases, such as ringworm that can spread between the two, although this is very rarely serious and can often clear up with fresh air and a good dose of sunshine.
If a herd of cows isn’t treated for ticks then those ticks can move to nearby horses, making them susceptible to tick-borne infections such as Lymes disease. While it’s not a serious condition it can cause discomfort and itching in horses that, if left untreated, can result in the horse itching his skin until it bleeds.
At the other end of the spectrum, anthrax can be passed from cows to horses but this is extremely rare with less than five cases in horses in 2019. It’s also worth noting that in the same year there was a total of 23 cases, in all animals. While anthrax is extremely serious there is a vaccine against it which has greatly helped to reduce the number of cases.
Can horses get sarcoids from grazing with cows?
While it’s certainly true that the majority of equine sarcoids (non-malignant tumors) contain some form of bovine papillomavirus there is no evidence to suggest that grazing horses and cows together will increase a horse’s risk. Some people suggest that it’s carried between animals by flies that have been feeding on cattle but, while this seems highly likely, it’s not necessarily the cause.
If you’re sensible, have suitable fencing and a good management plan then there’s no reason at all why horses can’t benefit greatly from being turned out with cows (and the cows will benefit too). Cows can also provide very good company for a horse that would otherwise be on its own.
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I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉