Foxtail: How I Loathe Thee

Have you ever dealt with the nasty effects of these prickly plants? We have. It’s not fun.

Foxtail and spiky seedhead grasses are weeds that can wreak havoc in your horse pastures or even from the point of your horse’s hay. Spiky seedheads occur in Sandbur, Bristle Grasses, and wheat or rye awns plus numerous other varieties of plants.

I have dealt with Foxtail (an annual reproducing grass) in Canada and spiky seedheads in Arizona – our hay is not often grown in Arizona but rather, brought in from other States. Many of these plants are considered to be weeds – not because they are toxic – because they are harmful to horses and can cause physical trauma to a horse's mouth, lips, tongue, gums and digestive system. Foxtail is a common meadow grass that has sharp-pointed, bristly segments with forward pointing barbs and since these barbs only slide in one direction, they can easily become embedded in the tongue, lips and gums where they act as a foreign body, stimulating excessive salivation and/or deep ulceration.

Similarly, the spiky seedheads we dealt with Arizona, had spiky barbs going every which way and could easily lodge themselves into the soft tissue of the lips, mouth, gums, lower gastrointestinal tract and occasionally skin, of horses from physical contact with the plants.

Identifying Foxtail: Foxtail seed heads resemble a bottle brush and are green or light green in color. Barley Foxtail looks like a green fan grass with soft, tan brush-like flowering spikes.

Foxtail and sandbur are commonly found in recently disturbed soils and sandy areas. They are common in pastures and hay fields after periods of drought or new seeding. Foxtail is very difficult to eliminate in pastures. Mowing is a relatively effective method of control for it, since timely mowing can minimize or eliminate seed production. But in a grass pasture or hay field, there are no herbicides available for control of foxtail, sandbur, or ticklegrass. Spot treatment with glyphosate is an option, but good pasture management practices is the best way to help reduce weed populations. And always check your hay source (both in round bales and square bales) for the presence of Foxtail. Reputable hay producers will often replace foxtail plagued hay with good quality product instead, but your best defense is to check your hay before you buy it.

Now, let’s say you’re past that point. How can you recognize if you horse has ingested Foxtail or a spiky seedhead?  Your horses will likely have blisters or ulcers on the lips, tongue, gums or other areas of the mouth after ingestion of these plants. Excessive salivation may also occur and animals may develop weight loss due to gastrointestinal tract damage if large amounts of the plants are ingested for long periods of time. The mouth ulcers will bleed and make you think your bits, excessive training or a serious disease, like vesicular stomatitis (VS), are causing the damage. It can be scary but the sooner you recognize what is causing the problem and remove the foxtail or barbed seedheads from the horse’s food source, the sooner things will return to normal. Unfortunately until the ulcers heal, there is not a lot you can do to improve your horse’s condition for the time being. Removal of the plant source and supportive treatment of the blisters or ulcers, such as rinsing with water, is about all you can do. If your horse needs intensive care, consult your veterinarian.

For information about pasture management, be sure to check out my Pristine Pastures article in the April edition of Western Horse Review!