The number of horses in northern Spanish mountains has increased in recent decades, but little is known about their grazing behaviour, performance and potential for foal meat production. This research aimed to study the diet selection, liveweight (LW) changes and parasitic status of dry and lactating mares, and foals’ LW gains, grazing on heathlands with different botanical composition. The experimental design consisted of three vegetation types: dominated by heather (Ericaceae) species (H), dominated by gorse (Ulex gallii; G) and co-dominated by gorse and heath-grasses (G-G), with four replicates per treatment (12 paddocks of 1.2 ha). The study lasted three grazing seasons (2010–12). Each year, 24 crossbred mature mares (310±52 kg LW) were used, managing one lactating mare with her foal plus one non-lactating mare per paddock from May to late summer or early autumn. In the case of H paddocks, animals had to be removed before (late August to early September) because of apparent loss of body condition. Animals were periodically weighed. Mares’ diet composition was estimated using alkane markers, analysing the discrepancies in alkane concentrations between dietary plant components and faeces. Faecal samples were also analysed for gastrointestinal nematodes ova. Chemical composition of the main plant components (i.e. heather, gorse and grasses) revealed a low nutritive value, averaging 79, 115 and 113 g CP/kg dry matter (DM), respectively, that could restrict livestock performance. Mares initially selected gorse and grasses (0.47 and 0.40, respectively, in 2010), increasing heather consumption over time (from 0.13 in 2010 to 0.29 in 2012) as gorse availability decreased. The performance of both mares and foals was lower in H compared with G and G-G paddocks (−216 v. 347 g/day for mares, P<0.01; 278 v. 576 g/day for foals, P<0.05), whereas LW changes were more favourable in dry mares than in lactating ones (241 v. 78 g/day; P<0.05). Small strongyle (Cyathostominae) egg counts in mares’ faeces increased across the grazing season with no differences between treatments. These results indicate that grazing by horses on gorse- and grass-gorse-dominated shrublands could be sustainable at least during part of the year (4 to 6 months). However, heather-dominated heathlands are not able to meet the nutritional needs of horses even for a short time (2 to 4 months). Nevertheless, the low nutritive quality of these vegetation communities, especially in autumn, requires animal access to other pastures with a higher nutritive value, or supplementary feeding, to enhance foals’ growth and maintain sustainable grazing systems with productive herds.