From simple store-bought peppermints to gourmet homemade "cookies," owners and feed manufacturers have come up with countless types of treats for our equine friends.
Fed in moderation, most treats won't negatively impact a horse's overall diet.
From simple store-bought peppermints to gourmet homemade "cookies," owners and feed manufacturers have come up with countless types of treats for our equine friends. We use these as rewards, encouragement, and when we just can't say "no" to that lovable face hanging over the stall door. But just how good (or bad) are these tidbits for horses? We caught up with Bob Coleman, PhD, equine extension professor at the University of Kentucky, and Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS, research nutritionist for Buckeye Nutrition/Mars Horsecare US Inc., to answer that question.
What is a "Healthy" Treat?
I once purchased a "healthy treat" that was basically a complete vitamin and mineral product for horses, similar to multivitamins that many people take daily. The concept was excellent: to provide a treat for horses on forage-only diets that would also meet their nutritional needs. The problem was that most of my horses wouldn't eat the treat after smelling it, and those that did spit it back out almost immediately. I noticed it did have a medicinal odor, and being a "nutrition geek" I tasted one of the treats and was reminded of multivitamins I took as a child. I considered adding something to make them more palatable, such as molasses (the "sweet" in sweet feed), to mask the odor and flavor. However, a friend then told me that molasses, with its high sugar content, was neither natural nor healthy (it turns out, though, that studies have shown molasses actually has lower sugar content than good-quality forage).
So with all the conflicting information available, how do you know what makes a treat "healthy" for a horse? "Any feed with a defined nutrient profile can work, as long as the horse owner remembers that it is a treat and should only be given in very small amounts," Coleman says.
Janicki describes healthy horse treats as those that do not contain additives, preservatives, or artificial flavorings. "They are all-natural, highly digestible, and tasty," she explains. "They are not intended to replace the normal grain or hay ration, but fed at a small amount per day will not adversely affect the horse's nutritional program in any way."
Commercially Manufactured Treats
Many feed and supplement companies manufacture horse treats in addition to their other products. Janicki notes that some produce all-natural, no-sugar-added treats in a variety of flavors. Companies also manufacture treats that can be fed to horses needing certain supplements. Some joint support treats, for example, contain glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and methylsulfonylmethane. These are available at feed stores and in equine catalogs. While Coleman does not recommend a specific brand, he does suggest owners make informed commercial treat-buying decisions based on the nutrient analysis and ingredient list on the label.
Many feed companies print recommendations for daily amounts of their treats directly on the packaging. "These recommendations are at a level that will provide maximum benefit without adversely affecting the horse's main nutrition program," Janicki says. "Most feed companies provide a contact phone number or website on their packaging, so an owner can contact the manufacturer directly to get (further) nutrition and ingredient information."
In addition to reading the ingredient list, Janicki says owners searching for healthy horse treats should be aware of common additives, preservatives, and flavoring used. These include calcium propionate, sodium propionate, ascorbic acid, and artificial flavor (i.e., apple or peppermint) or color (i.e., red or pink). She also recommends checking to see if sources of flavors advertised are included in the product. If a treat is advertised as carrot-flavored, for instance, carrots should be high on the ingredient list.
No matter what treat you choose, it serves little purpose if horses don't find it palatable. Researchers have conducted several studies to determine horse flavor preferences. Goodwin et al. published a study in 2005 in which they attempted to find flavors horses liked, compared to flavors feed manufacturers commonly use in their products. The researchers fed 15 different powdered flavors to eight horses and found three flavors that some of the horses refused to eat: Echinacea (an herbaceous flowering plant believed to be an immunostimulant), nutmeg, and coriander. Of the remaining 12 flavors, the top three favorites were fenugreek (commonly used to flavor curries and once used as a hay conditioner in Greece), banana, and cherry. Carrot and peppermint came in sixth and seventh, respectively. Results of other trials have shown that some horses prefer the flavor anise, while Kennedy et al. determined in 1999 that horses preferred cherry flavoring over both apple and citrus.
Owners might also wonder what treats veterinarians or nutritionists recommend feeding horses with certain disorders, along with which ones to avoid. Coleman does not recommend specific treats for horses with particular disorders and believes that as with normal horses, most treats, if fed in moderation, do not negatively affect horses with health conditions. For example, one or two sugar cubes are unlikely to harm an insulin-resistant horse, but the owner might still opt to feed a "low-sugar" treat instead. Even good-quality pasture and hay contains some soluble sugars, so it is difficult, if not impossible, for horses to avoid sugar.
Some supplements for conditions such as joint disorders can be offered as treats, similar to what is available for both dogs and cats. To be safe, Janicki recommends owners consult a qualified nutritionist or veterinarian for advice before feeding treats to horses with possible diseases or health conditions. Owners of competition horses must ensure any treats they feed do not contain substances that will test in competition (e.g., caffeine).
Make Your Own Horse Treats
Here is one easy and common treat recipe the author recommends:
1 pound oat-based sweet feed
½ pound flour
4 cups molasses
1 ½ cups beer
Mix flour, molasses, and beer thoroughly, making sure flour is well-blended. Add sweet feed slowly, covering all particles. Divide mixture between four well-oiled 12-by-15-inch pans. Place these in an oven set at a low temperature (200-250°F). When the mixture begins to set, cut it into 20 bars per tray. Then place it back into the oven until completely dry. Remove treats from pans and place each bar into an individual bag for ease of handling. These can be very sticky if not baked until completely dry, and baking times vary. For a healthier option, replace the sweet feed in this recipe with whole grains and grated carrot or apple.
The author also shares a few of her favorite equine treat recipe resources:
- Passion for Horses recipes: http://passionforhorses.ca/healthy-horse-treat-recipes
- Easy-to-Make Horse Treat Recipes: www.aboutyourhorse.com/easy-make-horse-treat-recipes
- Gourmet Horse Treats Recipes Cookbook: 40 Horse-Approved Homemade Treats, by Lisa Travens
- Homemade Horse Treat Recipes--Easy Homemade Horse Treats Recipes, by Jack Boston.
- The Original Book of Horse Treats: Recipes You Can Make at Home for Your Horse, by June V. Evers.
There are books full of homemade horse treat recipes and websites devoted to these concoctions. Again, deciding which treats are good for your horse depends on how you define "healthy." Many of these recipes call for sweet feed, flour, oil, brown sugar, and/or molasses. Other recipes include more "natural" ingredients such as grated apples and carrots, whole oats, and bananas. Almost every recipe uses molasses, oil, or applesauce to bind the dry ingredients. If a recipe calls for sweet feed, you might replace it with whole grains and grated carrot or apple for a healthier option.
Common Treat Sources
Coleman recommends apple and carrot chunks as natural treats that most horses will consume readily. However, some horses are more particular about what they consume than others. For example, one horse might turn his nose up at "old" carrots and/or apples that have lost their crunch, while another might devour seemingly anything--banana slices, raisins, pumpkin, or watermelon rinds.
Owners occasionally turn to candy canes and mints as treats, since many horses seem to like the taste of peppermint or spearmint. Because these candies are mostly comprised of sugar, you should not feed them to horses in excess, but a few pieces a day will not likely harm even an insulin--resistant horse.
Coleman suggests offering large pellets (about a half-inch in diameter) of a commercial horse feed--a few at a time--as a healthy alternative to sugar cubes or peppermints if an owner is concerned about feeding straight sugar to a horse. The advantage to using the horse's normal feed in a very small amount as a treat is that the owner can take comfort in knowing the feed is properly balanced.
Pretty much anything a horse will eat and that is suitable nutritionally can be used as a treat or a reward. Often it's not what the morsel is made of but how it's offered that turns it into a reward. Receiving food by hand or as a few pieces in a bucket outside the regular feeding schedule is usually what makes these offerings "treats."
There are a variety of types and ways a horse owner can provide treats, from a handful of the horse's normal feed to commercially available products. Provided in small doses, even a sugary peppermint can give the owner the satisfaction of providing something out of the ordinary without throwing the horse's diet off balance or causing metabolic distress. Owners can also find a variety of recipes to make treats from scratch using the ingredients of their choice. Find a treat your horse enjoys eating, and consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist if you have questions about the treat you offer.
About the Author
Liza Holland is a freelance writer and voice talent based in Lexington, Ky.