Can Horses Be Carnivorous? (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Your Horse's Behavior by author and equine behavior specialist Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB. The book is available from

While taking questions from the audience at a one-day behavior program in New Zealand this May, a well-respected horse owner and trainer described behavior she had recently witnessed in a horse involving a scenario I had never heard or thought about. None of the 200 or so horse owners in the audience had either. Then within a month, The Horse magazine received two e-mails about the same peculiar behavior. Again, none of the staff there had heard of such behavior in horses, and they referred the questions to me.

At a recent international meeting of horse behaviorists, I asked around about this behavior. While most people had heard of or seen certain aspects of the behavior, no one had experience or knowledge from the literature of the more disturbing elements.

So, let's go interactive on this one. Below we will simply print the three scenarios and questions. Let us know what you think and any experiences you've had, and I'll continue canvassing horse behaviorists and veterinarians around the world. We'll coordinate all of the responses and report back to you in a future issue.

Scenario One

My stallion was in his paddock one day as usual and I saw him chase and kill a rabbit. That sure was interesting to watch, but what really freaked me out and continues to worry me is that he stood over the dead rabbit, licking the blood. Have you ever seen this? Could it be like a dog, that once he gets a taste for blood he will do it again? Question from the audience during the Bomac Lecture

Series in Palmerston North, New Zealand, May 8, 2002.

Scenario Two

My horse has become carnivorous! She eats roadkill such as dead birds, and now I've discovered her stomping on a live rabbit in her stable. She picked it up in her mouth, bashed it against the stable wall, and ate it. I have owned horses for many years and never encountered this problem before, nor have any of my friends. What's going on?
E-mail to The Horse, May 2002

Scenario Three

I seriously doubt that you will want to publish my short story and the questions it would cause to be asked. I say this because it is too bizarre and frightening for the average reader and in all honesty, I wouldn't believe it myself if I had not seen it with my own eyes.

Everyone knows that horses as well as many other animals will do strange things from time to time that are out of character for them or will behave in some manner that's nearly impossible to explain. I think most professional animal people subscribe to the theory that because they are animals, there are just some things we can't predict about them or some of the things they might do. I only know that what I witnessed recently was real, and there doesn't seem to be any viable explanation for it.

A close friend of mine has a small farm on the edge of my town. For years he has helped people in the area who had animals they could not keep at home. As long as they buy the feed, he lets them keep the animals there, and he even helps them. My friend is very good with animals, and he loves taking care of them. He has seen just about everything you could expect to see happening with animals from the best to the worst. His understanding of horses is very strong because he's had so many of them from all different breeds throughout the years, but he never saw or experienced what recently happened.

I was driving to his farm and as I got near his driveway, I noticed one of the horses trying to reach something through the fence that faces the road. I turned into the drive and stopped for just a moment to see if I could see what the horse was trying to get. I walked up to the edge of the board fence and the horse was about 75 feet away from me. When he pulled his head back through the fence I was shocked to see that he had a dead rabbit in his mouth. The horse trotted a few steps carrying the rabbit, and at first I just kind of chuckled to myself thinking this horse was hard up for something to do or to be playful with. As I continued to watch, I became shocked as the horse lowered his head and placed the rabbit on the ground. He then placed a front hoof on part of the rabbit to hold it down and bit into the belly of the rabbit, tearing it apart. I stood there for about 10 minutes watching as this horse ate most of the rabbit's soft tissue. It must have been a freshly killed rabbit hit by a car, because the rabbit didn't seem to be stiff when the horse was carrying it. Needless to say I was almost in shock because I have never heard of any horse eating meat of any kind.

I also noticed that while this was going on, the other six horses were way off in the distance, and only this one horse was in the end of the pasture near where I was when entering the driveway.

I drove down the lane and practically ran into my friend's house to tell him what I had just seen. He laughed a little and thought I was kidding. I took him back to the scene of the incident and we climbed the fence and went over to what was left of the rabbit. He now seemed willing to believe me, even though he couldn't really explain it. He did say he had seen horses chewing some strange things over the years and that once before he saw a horse chewing on the hide of what looked like a dead rat that his barn cats had killed and eaten. Other than that, he was as confused as I was.

We went back up to the barnyard where there were goats and chickens running around in the small pasture area that was shared with the horses. We were sitting on the fence for about five minutes and all of the horses made their way up to the small barnyard area. My friend noticed that they seemed to be a little spooked or jittery. We were just sitting there watching them when all of a sudden we saw something neither of us could believe.

I couldn't be sure it was the same horse, but one horse was kind of chasing one of the small goats around a little bit and we both had to laugh at the playfulness. Then all of a sudden the playing turned savage when the horse grabbed the young goat by the neck with its teeth. The horse picked the goat off the ground and shook it violently. The young goat was hurt badly when the horse dropped it from his mouth.

Before we could get down off the fence to run over toward the goat, the horse bit into the underside of the goat's neck and began to shake it wildly again. We both knew there was no saving the goat, and my friend said we should just stay away. The horse dropped the goat to the ground; we knew it was dead. The horse grunted a few times and looked around for a few seconds, then put his hoof on the goat's neck, bent his head down, and began biting at the goat's belly. Soon the goat was opened up and the horse was biting deeper into the goat. The horse finally raised his head which was covered with blood, and he was just chewing away. We sat perfectly still and watched as the horse continued to reach into the opened goat and eat.

After about five minutes, the horse that killed the goat seemed to lose interest and walked over to the water tub to drink. Meanwhile, three other horses came slowly to the dead goat and seemed to be sniffing the area. They got their noses closer and closer, then started licking the dead goat. Soon, one of the three horses reached into the opened cavity, got a bite, and raised her head while chewing. Then, the other two horses did the same thing. Next, the mare picked up the dead goat and carried it off to another spot about 20 feet away from where it originally was and as she was about to put it down, the horse who killed it and the other two horses came over. They all reached their heads toward the goat and grabbed some part of the goat with their teeth and they literally tore the goat into pieces with all the tugging and pulling, like they each were trying to get away with their share. Only one of the four came away without a piece of the goat in his mouth. The other three were chewing away, eating their piece of goat. The one who had killed the goat had the biggest part of what was left of the goat, and he put it on the ground, took a couple of bites, and walked away chewing. The other three came back for a little more, and they must have had their fill because they all finally moved off.

Soon two little colts less than three months old came over to what was left of the goat and they took some bites and just stood there chewing and eating. It was just starting to turn dusk and the horses all went into the barn. My friend went and got some plastic and we put what was left of the goat into the plastic, both of us still in a state of total disbelief. The horses did not eat the legs, ribs, and other areas that were obviously too hard to chew, but nearly all of the soft tissue was consumed and they had even licked the blood off the grass.

My friend and I were absolutely stunned over what we had just witnessed. I asked him if the one horse doing the killing could have sent a signal to the others that this was all right for them to do, or if even a horse will respond to the smell of blood like an animal that is normally a carnivore. He simply said he couldn't understand any of it, but that he was going to watch the barnyard area carefully for the next several days to see if the horses were attempting to go after any of the other goats. And he said he was going to be very careful working around the horses to make sure they were not getting aggressive toward him in any way.

A couple of days went by and I went back out to his place to visit again. He said he had cleaned the blood off all the horses and groomed them. He told me that at no time did any of the horses get aggressive toward him and that all of them seemed as normal as they had always been. Since this incident, there has been nothing else going on with these horses that is strange or odd.

So, the events we saw with our own eyes are still a mystery. Neither of us is willing to believe that this is the first time in history that something like this has ever happened with horses or other farm animals for that matter. There must be other people who have seen, read stories about, or know of similar events, and I'm personally interested in knowing if anyone associated with your organization has ever had any knowledge of anything like this happening in the past. I guess we would both feel better if we knew that other people had seen something like this.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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