Incredible Edibles: Horse Treats

I confess. I'm an incurable treat-giver. Despite all those stern warnings from the riding instructors of my youth--that I would teach my horses to bite, and probably lose a finger in the process--I've long made a habit of slipping them a little nibble of something special, as a greeting, a consolation, or a congratulations for a job well done. In the pockets of each of my several grungy barn jackets lurk a small and sticky collection of Scotch mints, my horses' personal favorite--and believe me, they know exactly where they are, and how to best extract them from me. (My chestnut, Toddy, tucks his nose under my elbow and nudges me--or if that doesn't work, he shoves; Pokey, my gallant little pinto, sweeps into a bow, the one circus trick he knows; and my mare just glares at me because she knows the Boys have gotten their goodies and it's high time Herself got hers!)

Yes, my horses are spoiled rotten; I cheerfully admit it. I'm fully aware that Scotch mints, while capable of improving their breath to a significant degree, are probably not the most healthful treat I could be distributing. They do have two advantages over more organic offerings, however--they don't freeze in winter or go moldy in summer. My horses also enjoy frequent treats of a more conventional nature such as carrots and apples, mushy pears, and green seedless grapes. Toddy, who has an adventurous palate, has been known to sample Fancy Fruits, Lifesavers candies, gingersnaps, and on one occasion, a grilled cheese sandwich. I even recall a Quarter Horse with an advanced sense of humor who once reached over his owner's shoulder and stole her hamburger (fortunately, carnivorous impulses like this are rare!).

The riding instructors of my youth did, of course, have a point, and if any of the horses in my little herd had aggressive impulses or were prone to nipping (as might a young colt or a breeding stallion, for example), I certainly would refrain from hand-feeding them and content myself with placing treats in their feed buckets.

Offering treats by hand isn't viewed by all as the reprehensible practice it once was; witness, for example, the growing popularity of "clicker training," a method of operant conditioning that focuses specifically on motivating horses with hand-fed treats. Instead of viewing treats as a way of "spoiling" horses, advocates of clicker training maintain that nothing encourages horses to learn and to enjoy the learning process better than a food reward. In clicker training, humans become "vending machines," doling out a morsel of something tasty for every correct response by the horse. Horses quickly learn that merely "mugging" their owners for treats gets them nowhere. The end result, say fans of the method, is mannerly, attentive horses who eagerly perform tasks on command--and almost never tuck their noses under one's elbow and shove like my unmannerly gelding.

Adventurous Eating

Whether you feed treats as a training reward, or just for the "warm and fuzzies" you feel, you probably have a pretty good idea of what your horse finds appealing. Although equines are, on the whole, appreciative of routine in their daily munchings, their individual tastes when it comes to goodies can be quite far-ranging. Beyond the predictable carrot lies a vast array of items horses have been known to consume, some of which would raise eyebrows in North America.

In parts of the Caribbean, for example, as well as many countries in Central and South America, horses are offered chopped or ground sugar-cane. The fiber left over after the sugar has been extracted also is fed to horses on occasion, although it's largely indigestible. (In Australia, where it's called begasse, the sugar cane fiber is treated with alkali to improve its digestibility.) Big, brown chunks of unrefined cane sugar, called jaggery, are a popular treat in India.

Coconuts can be a food source for horses in tropical climates; they will eat both the coconut meat and the brown fibers from the inside of the husk. (Coconut meal occasionally is used in feeds as a protein source, and coconut oil is a source of dietary fat.) On some smaller Caribbean islands, horses are fed the chopped leaves of coconut palms, but since the indigestible fiber content of these leaves is extremely high, it's tough for horses to extract any nutrients. They serve mostly to provide some "chew" time.

In the Middle East, where date palms abound, pitted dates are sometimes smushed together into a ball and fed as a treat. Most fruits, in fact, are safe for horses to eat as long as the pits or stones are removed. In some countries, horses consume citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits, rind and all.

Fruit pulp, which is the material left over after juice is extracted from whole fruit, is sometimes ensiled (fermented under controlled conditions) or dehydrated for use in livestock feeds. Apples, oranges, and grapefruit commonly are processed this way. Pomace, or dried fruit pulp, can be found in many commercial horse treats; citrus pomace generally is treated with limestone (calcium carbonate) to help bind its high levels of pectin. As a result, it is a good source of calcium. In some parts of the world, dried citrus pulp is incorporated into pelleted horse feeds, where the feed is accepted readily up to a level of about 15% (higher levels of pomace seem to be less palatable).

In Mediterranean climates, as well as South America, California, and parts of Australia, almond trees flourish. Almond hulls, which are similar to the fleshy part of a peach, can be obtained by drying the almond fruit surrounding the hard central nut. Similar to grass hay in digestible energy, calcium, and phosphorus, almond hulls are relatively low in protein (about 9% maximum) and can make a safe and palatable fiber source for horses. Peanut hulls, sunflower seed hulls, and soybean hulls also can be fiber alternatives in places where hay is hard to obtain.

Day-old bread is a reputed favorite of equines in Spain, while potatoes often are fed to horses in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe where hay is expensive and root vegetables cheap and plentiful. Potatoes are similar in nutrient content to corn, and usually are fed raw (some horses also develop a taste for the baked variety). It has been reported that horses and mules can be fed up to 20 pounds of potatoes per day without adverse effects, other than the possibility of loose manure. (Potatoes have a high moisture content, ranging upwards of 77%, so 20 pounds of spuds would really be equivalent to four or five pounds of grain in terms of energy content.) Green, sprouted, or rotten potatoes should not be fed, however, as they contain toxic alkaloids that could trigger colic, diarrhea, or even cardiac arrest.

In a similar vein, large root vegetables such as rutabagas and turnips are fed to horses in Europe, and yams in more tropical climates (such as Indonesia). Carrots sometimes are offered in large quantities in the United Kingdom and South Africa, in the belief that they will help keep a horse from going off his feed. Carrots are a valuable source of beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) as well as potassium, vitamin C, thiamine, folic acid, and magnesium.

Sugar beets are familiar to many horse owners as the source of beet pulp (the fibrous substance left over after the sugar has been extracted from the beets). Beets have a long history of being used as livestock feed, dating back to 16th Century Germany. The large, white beetroot, sometimes called a "fodder beet," was favored for horses and cattle, and purple beets also found their way into feed buckets on occasion, as did beet greens. Both the greens and the root are excellent sources of potassium and vitamin A.

Other types of leafy tops, including turnip greens, mustard greens, radish greens, and various kinds of lettuce, have infiltrated equine diets. Because of their high moisture content, they generally offer little in the way of nutrients. In places where hay is scarce, however, they might help satisfy a horse's grazing urge.

Because they have a high moisture content (ranging from 75% to 90%), it's particularly useful to feed succulent fruits and root vegetables in winter, when horses tend to decrease water intake and subsequently run a higher risk of colic. If you buy these treats in bulk, store them in a place where they won't freeze--horses can choke on frozen vegetables and fruit.

Horses in Indonesia sometimes are offered peanut hay (not that dissimilar from alfalfa, since both are members of the legume family), while on the northern-most islands of Japan, horses graze bamboo grass and sometimes have their diets supplemented with rice straw or rice hulls (both low in nutrients, but helpful in maintaining digestive tract health). In Australia, rice hulls are incorporated into some pelleted high-fiber feeds, as are lupine hulls. While the lupine is commonly known as a semi-tropical garden flower, it also yields whitish, almost rectangular seeds that have been used as a foodstuff since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Lupine hulls are an excellent fiber source (yielding up to 46% crude fiber) and have a protein level of about 8.5%. The lupine seeds themselves can be incorporated into horse feeds as a protein source.

It might come as no surprise to hear that in Ireland, there's a widely held belief that an occasional bottle of Guinness or stout is a valuable tonic for racehorses. Beer, of course, is made with fermented grains and yeast, so it's relished by many horses (whether the alcohol content is of any benefit is debatable). It's also common for Irish trainers to crack a couple of raw chicken eggs into their horses' feed; presumably, the eggs provide some protein, although they undoubtedly are an acquired taste for most equines.

Somewhat more agreeable is the addition of honey to the diet of many competitive trail horses in France. It's believed to enhance the equine powers of endurance. Elsewhere, honey is a popular flavoring for feeds, just as molasses is in North America.

In India, horses might find their grain rations mixed with cow's milk or ghee, a clarified butter widely used in Indian cooking. Although it's of animal origin, ghee is a surprisingly digestible source of fat and calories.

Going back Down Under, you might find horses enjoying whole sunflowers as a treat. Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of unsaturated fats as well as thiamine, magnesium, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, copper, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and iron (and many horses love them), while the plants are a moderate source of protein and a good source of dietary fiber.

Acorns apparently are relished by horses in some parts of the world--particularly when they have fallen to the ground and fermented, as they do each autumn in the New Forest region of Great Britain. The New Forest ponies which roam loose in the area often develop a taste for fermented acorns, and can be seen staggering drunkenly along the roadsides of the villages in the region. Acorns do contain tannins, which in high concentrations could conceivably injure the lining of the digestive tract. It would take many pounds of the nuts to do a horse any harm. Similarly, carob and locust bean pods make welcome treats in other parts of the world.

Last and possibly most bizarre is the diet of the hardy horses of Iceland. In a land where farming is next to non-existent, grazing extremely poor, and feeds of all kinds expensive to import, the horses have learned to eat what's at hand. For many of them, that's salted herring--which serves both as a protein and an energy source (the fish is relatively high in fat).

Healthful Choices

I'm not suggesting you go out of your way to offer salted herring or coconut fibers as a treat. The old reliables--carrots and apples--are far more widely available in North America, and happily accepted by the vast majority of the equine population. They are among the most healthful choices you can make, with plenty of nutrients and virtually no drawbacks. (Apple seeds do contain compounds that horses might find toxic if they were to consume them in sufficient quantity--but that would take many pounds of apples per day.)

The only real caveat with carrots, apples, and other fruits and vegetables you choose is in the serving size. Unless your horse has dental problems, it's actually safer to offer most fruits and veggies whole than to cut them up into bite-size chunks; I've seen more than one horse suffer a frightening case of choke when a just-right chunk of apple, insufficiently chewed, lodged in his esophagus. By offering the treat whole, you'll ensure your horse will do a more thorough job of chewing before he swallows. (If you do have a horse with dental problems--a geriatric gentleman, for example--try grating the treat with a kitchen grater rather than chopping it for him.)

Evidently there are a lot of indulgent horseowners out there just like me, because the market for commercially available horse treats--of all sorts of shapes and flavors--is burgeoning. A quick search of the Internet turned up more than 30 companies offering bite-sized "homemade, all-natural" horse treats, ranging from heart-shaped "cookies" of grain and molasses, to nuggets of apple and carrot pomace stuck together with corn syrup, to crispy "potato chips" laced with parsley, garlic, and salt. (Several manufacturers offer treats with herbal ingredients, but any therapeutic effect likely would be minimal unless you were to offer your horse several pounds of the treats daily. A horse cookie mixed with rose hips, fennel, and licorice certainly sounds appetizing, which probably is the main appeal!)

If you feel you'd like to play chef for your horse, there are treat mixes you can order by mail, mix up, and bake at home. For a home-made touch, try The Original Book of Horse Treats: Recipes You Can Make At Home for Your Horse. Author June V. Evers has created recipes for everything from "stud muffins" to elaborate carrot cakes for your birthday beast. You might have to do most of the shopping for ingredients at the feed store rather than the supermarket, though.

Studies have demonstrated that most horses prefer feeds with a hard, crunchy texture, so if you're trying to choose a new favorite nibbly for him, steer away from those with a soft or crumbly consistency. (Harder treats also have the advantage of not disintegrating in your jacket pocket.) The treats should smell fresh and appetizing; keep in mind that "all-natural" treats might be formulated without preservatives, so they'll have a limited shelf-life. (Several of Evers's recipes for "cookies" freeze well, so you can make up a large batch and tuck some away in the freezer for the future.)

Of course, whenever you're offering a treat, make sure you do it safely. Present it on the flat of your palm with your fingers pressed together; that way, stray digits won't accidentally get sucked into your equine's eager mouth.

Better yet, do as my instructors recommended--put the treats in your horse's feed bucket. He'll appreciate them either way.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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