Which trees should you plant in your horse’s field? [H&H VIP]

  • Trees may appeal as a low-maintenance and attractive alternative to man-made shelter for horses, but are they really the ideal solution?

    The problem with planting trees or hedgerows in bare paddocks is the time required to establish the plants. If something is edible, the horses may eat it, and so the main challenge is protecting the young plants as they grow.

    “Horses and trees don’t really mix,” says Matthew Hall, head gardener at Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire. “The horses will chew the bark as well as the leaves, and they’ll rub up against them. You’ll need to plant a strong growing tree such as ash or redwood, and then protect it. There must be a sizeable gap between the trees and the horses so that the horses can’t reach them, or the trees haven’t a hope.”

    ‘Trees must be protected’

    The Animal Health Trust doesn’t recommend any specific trees suitable for horse pasture, but does advise against oak and sycamores.

    “There’s little benefit to having trees beyond the fact that they provide shelter [in inclement weather] and shade in hot weather,” says vet John Brook, of Spring Paddocks Equine practice in rural Warwickshire.

    “But the indigenous varieties like beech, field maple and hornbeam are reasonably fast growing.”

    Vet Karen Coumbe says: “I think hedges and trees are great to plant as they improve the whole environment long term and provide useful shelter, so would encourage people to do so. You just need to fence off the area, while trees or hedges are young. Overall they are likely to improve property.

    The British Horse Society (BHS) lists a small number of trees as safe to plant in a horse’s field (see bottom), because of horses’ tendency to eat anything edible if hungry.

    “The horses will eat the bark of any tree, especially if a field has been overgrazed or if there isn’t enough feed or forage, so the trees must be protected,” says Emmeline Hannelly, the BHS’s Welfare Education Officer.

    Emmeline adds that trees provide limited shelter and shade compared with hedgerows.

    “A good hedge, running the length of the field, will give you shelter all day. You often see horses with their backs to the hedge for shelter in bad weather and they provide some shade, whereas deciduous trees only provide shade and shelter in the summer months in the space under the tree.”

    Hedgerow maintenance

    Trees and hedges both need protecting, especially in the early years after planting. Trees can be surrounded by a metal or wood guard, or an electric fence. Fencing or electric tape can be used to protect hedges.

    Matthew at Batsford Arboretum says: “It takes time to establish a hedgerow [as with trees], and it must be well protected when it’s growing. You’ll need to spend a fortune on guards for any plants.”

    The BHS advises that hedges strong enough to contain horses may take years to establish, and need reinforcing with fencing so that horses can’t find a gap and push through. They also need regular maintenance to ensure that they continue to provide an effective boundary.

    “You want to avoid plants that are too nutritionally attractive in your hedges. We do from time to time see corneal (eye) injuries from thorns, so you don’t want the horses burrowing in the hedgerow,” adds vet John Brook.

    “A good old-fashioned hedge can grow to quite a height. It needs to be well-maintained and regularly checked for poisonous plants like deadly nightshade,” he says.

    Warning: equine atypical myopathy

    Vet Karen Coumbe warns that autumn and spring are the high-risk seasons for this disease, which has a
    high fatality rate. The disease is thought to be linked to eating the seeds from the Maple tree family, including sycamore and box elder.

    The safe options

    According to the British Horse Society, the following are not poisonous:


    Hedgerow plants:

    Trees and plants to avoid

    The following are known to be harmful to horses:


    For more information and a full list of plants poisonous to horses visit www.bhs.org.uk

    Ref: H&H 12 February, 2015