Q: I’d like to make some festive holiday horse treats as gifts for my friends, and it seems like everything is pumpkin flavored this time of year. Is it okay for horses to eat pumpkin and/or pumpkin-flavored treats?
A: The short answer is yes! Orange pumpkins are safe to feed horses, and this includes the seeds. However, avoid generalizing that all squashes and pumpkins are okay for horses to eat.
When feeding fruits and vegetables to horses the first consideration is whether the item is toxic to them; remember, horses cannot safely consume all the same things we humans can. Check lists of poisonous plants and foods provided by universities such as Cornell, as well as sources such as the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to see what you can find out about the item.
Next consider what we know about the item’s nutrient profile to determine if it is a sensible choice to feed horses. (You can look up a lot of data on foods at Self Nutrition Data.) This is particularly important for horses with metabolic conditions, because knowing a food’s glycemic index and load can be important to preserving your horse’s health. Many of us are familiar with glycemic index, which compares the potential for foods containing the same quantity of carbohydrate to raise blood glucose. However many foods might not actually contain very much of these high glycemic carbohydrates, which makes knowing glycemic load useful.
Glycemic load multiplies the glycemic index by the amount of carbohydrate, in grams, provided by the food and then divides it by 100. While pumpkin has a glycemic index of 75, meaning that the blood glucose response to eating a set amount of carbohydrate from pumpkin is 75% of the response to the control, its glycemic load is only 3. This means that it will not cause a rapid increase in blood glucose, especially when eaten in limited quantities. This makes it a safe choice for horses with equine metabolic syndrome and conditions such as polysaccharide storage myopathy.
In the scheme of human foods pumpkin has a relatively high potassium level, providing about 0.4 grams per cup. In the context of the typical equine diet where an average grass hay is providing 8.5 grams per pound, the amount in a sensible serving of pumpkin is likely nothing to worry about. However, if you have a horse with hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, where you are trying to limit potassium intake, it might be wise to skip the pumpkin treat.
Pumpkin seeds are often touted for their health benefits, and certainly human-focused research in the scientific literature suggests they might have benefits thanks to their positive impact on nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide is an important cellular signaling compound and powerful vasodilator. We don’t know what the benefits might be to horses, but there are lots of anecdotal discussions online about the potential benefits.
Try suspending a smaller dessert (or pie) pumpkin as a stall toy. This could also make a cute gift for a friend’s horse. Alternatively, cook the pumpkin and use the softened flesh to make horse treats. Try combining cooked pumpkin with oats, wheat bran, a little cinnamon, and molasses until gooey and baking at about 300oF for at least 20 minutes. Note that treats with oats and wheat bran aren’t suitable for horses with metabolic issues. If all this sounds like a lot of bother, just put the pumpkin in your horses’ stalls whole for them to play with, or cut into pieces and add to their regular feed. Just remove the stem as it may be a choking hazard.