Apples and carrots have been the treat of choice of horse trainers for centuries.
Horse treats have come a long way. Horse owners have seen the treats they feed to horses evolve from the traditional apple or carrot to baked, heavily formulated "cookies" and snacks. But are these treats any better for your horse than the traditional fruits and vegetables? Are we as horse owners doing the right thing for our animals by feeding them all of these snacks?
In the United States alone, there are more than 50 companies that manufacture commercial horse treats, adding up to a significant economic impact in the equine industry. Many companies started in small kitchens, then expanded to larger production facilities. Some other treat brands developed as an outgrowth of a company's feed business, such as Rounders Treats made by Blue Seal Feeds.
With such clever names as Stud Muffins, Nicker Snax, Tally Oats, and Mrs. Pastures Horse Cookies, horse treats have become a staple of feed and tack stores. But before you run out and pick up a batch, let's have a look at the various ingredients used to make treats.
A broad range of ingredients is used in the manufacture of treats. As you would expect, many ingredients found in treats are the same as those found in equine feeds. Primary ingredients might include rolled oats, whole oat groats (grain without the hull), cracked corn, barley, dried beet pulp, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ meal, wheat flour, flaxseed, oat bran, oat flour, rye flour, rice flour, and dehydrated alfalfa. Sweeteners and flavor enhancers include apples, carrots, raisins, molasses, dark brown sugar, peppermint, and cinnamon. Trace amounts of minerals and herbs such as salt, garlic, rosemary extract, Norwegian kelp powder, and brewer's yeast are seen in many formulations. Many manufacturers also add vitamins and other nutrients such as vitamins A, B12, D3, E, and K; and ascorbic acid, folic acid, niacin, and zinc oxide.
In The Original Book of Horse Treats: Recipes You Can Make at Home for Your Horse, author June Evers offers both fancy and plain equine snacks that are easy to make in your kitchen. Evers has sold more than 35,000 copies of her book, showing that little horse treats are big business.
One of the benefits of making your own treats is that you know exactly what ingredients are included. Should you want to avoid refined white sugar, you can elect to use other sweet substitutes such as molasses or raisins. If your horse is partial to carrots, you can make them the primary ingredient in your recipes. For people who like to cook and experiment with flavors, the treat possibilities are endless.
As with feed, it is important to carefully check the list of ingredients should your horse have any food allergies or sensitivities.
Several treats now on the market claim to be appetizing and to provide joint or hoof therapy. In addition to the standard fare mentioned above, ingredients such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, biotin, and methionine are added to some formulas to provide possible nutritional assistance for a host of equine health issues.
Can the addition of these nutraceuticals in horse treats actually make a difference for your horse?
That question emerges from the greater issue of whether nutraceutical supplements can help such conditions as arthritis or cartilage damage. Although detailed studies have been performed on humans and dogs for many of these ingredients, equines do not absorb and process these products in the same way. Until detailed scientific studies are performed with large control groups, questions will remain as to the effectiveness of these treatments in horses.
Many horse owners and veterinarians believe that nutritional supplements do make a difference, but these thoughts are based more on personal experience than science. For now, most agree that the standard nutraceutical ingredients will not harm your horse and might help him, so why not give them a try? As with all nutritional supplements, horse owners should consult with their veterinarians before administering a horse treat that contains nutraceuticals.
Positive Drug Tests?
Horse owners should be knowledgeable about the ingredients in horse treats as well as supplements (and anything else your horse is given). With different horse treats coming out monthly, ingredients must be scrutinized. Certain herbs can cause a horse to test positive for the presence of drugs during competition blood testing.
Whether you are working on the racetrack or showing sport horses, monitor any treat given to the horses in your charge. It is very embarrassing to have a positive test result for a banned substance because you fed your horse a treat or supplement.
Lots of horses love sugar cubes and those individually wrapped red and white peppermints. But is pure sugar good for your horse? It depends on the quantity of sugar that you feed. In horses, like in humans, excessive sugar intake can cause obesity and other physical ailments.
A couple of sugar cubes or mints a day will probably not harm your horse's teeth, but you should monitor the amount he consumes. You are probably better off to alternate pure sugar with either carrots and apples (sliced into bite-size pieces) or manufactured horse treats that contain apples, carrots, oats, or other grains.
Show jumping rider Frankie Chesler of Orangeville, Ontario, a veteran of the Canadian equestrian team, monitors the amount of sugar her horses are fed. "When we purchase treats at the tack store, we try to stick with the products that we have used before or have heard that are good by word of mouth. A lot of the treats are usually made up of sugar, molasses, and sweet feed, so we try to limit our horses' intake of them."
Regardless of the ingredients used in treats, it is important to remember that a drastic change in your horse's diet (such as feeding several pounds of treats to a horse which isn't used to them) could cause digestive upset. Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, associate professor of Rutgers University, reminds us that very few treats are free of calories, and this should be taken into consideration when you plan your horse's diet if you feed a lot of treats.
Ralston cites a case where a horse owner caused a horse to founder from feeding a large quantity of treats. She adds, "The key thing to remember is that treats are treats. They are meant to be fed in small doses."
Is It Fresh?
There are several horse treats currently on the market that do not contain any preservatives, nor do they list an expiration date. As with all consumer products, buyer beware! It is hard to tell by looking if a product is fresh or not. Always look to see if a product lists a "best if used by..." or "best before..." date on the label. Consider contacting the manufacturer if you can't find a date or have questions about the expiration dates.
Although most people prefer "natural" ingredients, the use of artificial flavor preservatives (with butylated hydroxyl anisole, or BHA; and butylated hydroxyltoluene, or BHT) is not necessarily a bad thing. Preservatives can make a huge difference in the shelf life of a product, and in the safety of feeding that product to your horse. No one wants to risk colic or other illness because a treat has spoiled. Any claim that a product "does not expire" is very difficult to take seriously without scientific proof.
Storage and Packaging
Packaging itself can have a tremendous influence on how fresh a treat will stay. Common packaging includes cardboard, plastic bags, and foil bags. No matter which you prefer, check to ensure that the packaging is strong enough to keep out dirt and insects.
Pamela Berryhill of Giddyap Girls Horse Treats recommends that you store horse treats away from heat and moisture, and also away from birdseed. Away from birdseed? "Many feed stores carry both horse treats and birdseed," she explains. "Birdseed often contains bugs and insects that can infect horse treats."
Berryhill also believes it is important for consumers to understand the lengths that many manufacturers go to ensure that horse treats do not contain unwanted bugs. Her manufacturing plant has special food processing fumigation monthly. This process kills any insects that might find their way into her plant, but the chemicals are safe to use around food (and horse treats).
With all the effort put into making the best product available, it is all for naught if your horse won't eat the treat you have so eagerly offered him. Horses, like humans, have different food and texture preferences. Some prefer crunchy baked goodies, while others like soft, chewy treats. Many people prefer the dry texture of store-bought treats for their horses because they are less messy than apples and carrots.
Shape can also have a bearing on whether your horse will devour the treat you lovingly give him. A percentage of horses seem to prefer rounded treats that allow them to easily move them around in their mouths, while others inhale treats whether they are square, rectangular, or clover-shaped. Beware of treats that could cause the horse to choke, such as those with pieces that are too large. The shape of a treat can also have a bearing on how easy it is to separate into smaller pieces, and some even have indented lines in the treat that make them easier to break apart.
How to Feed Treats
Almost every horse owner has strong feelings about whether or not to feed treats, and how to feed treats.
The biggest controversy concerns whether you should feed treats by hand or not. Some horse owners believe that horses will become "mouthy" and try to nip if they are fed by hand, so they will instead place the treats in the horse's feed tub. Others feel that giving the horse treats by hand strengthens the bond between horse and owner. The choice you make depends on your horse's manners and personality. If feeding by hand, give on the flat of the palm so that a horse does not accidentally bite fingers that are gripping a treat.
Treats for Reward
Chesler agrees that treats can be a form of positive reinforcement. "Our horses definitely respond to the treats we give them," she says. "After finishing a difficult jumping class, the horses will stop for a treat from their groom before leaving the in-gate area. And sometimes they will not walk on until they get it!"
Chesler believes her horses "anticipate treats, especially after a tough class, and also when we are schooling them over hard obstacles. This past summer my young jumper, VDL Nuit de Pomme, was having a few issues with the water jump. I worked with him every day around that jump, walking to it, trotting over it, and eventually jumping it as if it were in a show. Every time we jumped it or had a good training session, I would give him a mint. He got to the point where he would jump the water obstacle, then stop for his treat. Now he jumps the water fine, and doesn't need a treat every time."
There are huge price differences between competing horse treat products. The average price is $2.50-$8.50 per pound, depending on the product and the volume purchased. Is $8.50 a pound too much to pay for manufactured treats for your horse? The only one who can answer that question is you. If you believe that a certain treat makes your horse try harder, run faster, or jump higher, then you should probably stick to what works for you and your horse.
However, if price is a consideration, you can purchase apples for less when they are in season. Remember, apples and carrots have been the treat of choice of horse trainers for centuries. Bags of mints (about 50 mints) are about $1.99 a bag, making the cost less than four cents per treat, and sugar cubes are even cheaper.
Also consider convenience; those apples and carrots can get mushy and abused when traveling. Processed treats don't need refrigeration or special handling. That's great news for horse shows and trail rides.
In the end, whatever treat you decide is right for your horse will probably be just fine with him!
About the Author
Hallie McEvoy is a free-lance writer, author, and a licensed USA Equestrian horse show judge. Her second book, Horse Show Judging for Beginners, will be issued this fall by The Lyons Press. Although she lives in Vermont, she raises Thoroughbreds in New York and Maryland.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals