Horse Treats: Treat with Care

Mindful feeding makes rewarding horses a treat

Every time he leaves his favorite restaurant, Jack Dinoffri fills his pockets with peppermint candies for his niece’s horse. And he encourages his dinner guests to do the same.

“We have to have treats for the horse, you know,” he tells them.

Even though he doesn’t own a horse himself, Dinoffri knows most horses have a pretty tough time turning down something sweet. He also assumes that most people who do own horses can’t resist feeding them treats from time to time.

And he’s right. In a 2016 TheHorse.com survey of more than 1,400 horse owners, only 4% of respondents said they never fed their horses treats. Most listed carrots and apples as favorite treats for their horses, followed by commercial products, peppermints, and other sweets. Still others listed a variety of foods ranging from bananas and prunes to lemons and cupcake frosting as go-to horse treats. 

But as much as horses love treats, and as much as owners love providing them, understanding the strong connections between horses and food is crucial to feeding treats effectively, says Robin L. Foster, PhD, CAAB, horse behavior consultant, research professor at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington, and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

“Food is very powerful,” Foster says. “It can be used to reinforce behavior, and it can also be used to strengthen relationships between horses and humans, so it is important that you know how to use food.”

As a result, it is critical for owners to know why they are offering their horses these tidbits in the first place. “That means being mindful about feeding treats,” Foster says.

Treats for Positive Experiences

Little bits of grain, carrots, or other treats have long been integral to many training programs that reward horses for performing correct behaviors on cue. These programs, such as clicker-training, exemplify the significance of mindful feeding, Foster says.

“Ideally, the behavior should be on cue,” she says, “For example, by adding a verbal cue ‘back,’ using a clicker sound to mark the correct behavior when the horse backs up, and finally following up with a food reinforcer. Otherwise, the person can become the cue associated with the food, and the horse may offer the behavior whenever the person is present, even if it isn’t an appropriate time or place.”

Likewise, owners might use food treats to mitigate potentially unpleasant experiences, such as visits from the farrier or the veterinarian for routine care and vaccinations. Providing just a little food before and after the procedure can make it less stressful and, therefore, more pleasant for the horse—and the owner.

“If you give horses a little food before an unpleasant procedure and give them a little food after it, they will go through the procedure more easily,” Foster says. “If people did this before and after every injection, there would be fewer needle-shy horses.”

Conversely, feeding a horse treats at the wrong time can accidentally reinforce behaviors the owner would prefer to discourage. For example, a horse that is pawing, begging, nosing human pockets for hidden treats, or mugging—getting pushy around humans and other horses—in anticipation of a treat can be dangerous. That kind of behavior can not only annoy humans but also negatively affect the horse displaying it, Foster says.

“Horses can become aggressive and demanding over food,” she says. “And horses that are pawing or begging for a treat are actually feeling aroused and driven in anticipation of food, and that’s often not a feel-good experience for the horse.”

Treats as Part of the Diet

Meanwhile, because food is directly connected to equine well-being, it is powerful in another way, too, says Burt Staniar, PhD, equine nutritionist in Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Animal Sciences, in University Park. That’s why it’s just as important to know how treats affect a healthy horse’s diet.

“Nutrition is complicated and not straightforward, but there is some common sense to the way it works,” Staniar says. “The simplest rule is ‘everything in moderation.’ ”

Staniar says a 1,000-pound horse should consume about 20 pounds of food every day. “Most of that is in forage—hay and pasture grass—and the rest is in grain and then in supplements, including treats,” he says. “So no matter what they are, treats are only going to account for a small percentage of horses’ diets.”

But that’s not to say owners should downplay the nutritional value of the treats they do feed, especially in light of what those items contribute to a horse’s overall diet.

“I go to the barn to visit my horse a couple of times a week, and I always bring an apple or a carrot,” Staniar says. “But actually there is no difference between an apple or a carrot or a ­peppermint—the nutritional value is in the sugar, and they all contribute sugar to a horse’s diet.”

As a result, upping a horse’s sugar intake by overfeeding treats can promote unhealthy conditions such as obesity and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), a condition characterized by general obesity, regional adiposity (fat accumulation in certain areas of a horse’s body, such as in the neck), insulin resistance (a reduction in insulin sensitivity that makes it more difficult for cells to take up blood sugar, or glucose, for metabolism or storage), and laminitis, a painful foot condition that causes inflammation and weakening of the tissues that attach the coffin bone to the hoof wall.

So it is important for owners to pay attention to how many treats and what kind they feed their horses at any one time. “If you give the horse 10 carrots, you should be giving them over the course of the day,” Staniar says. “If you give them all 10 carrots at once, you have complications in the glucose-insulin response.”

If your horse has one of the abovementioned conditions, ask your veterinarian if you should be feeding a special low-sugar and -starch treat product instead.

Choosing Treats

The good news is, when it comes to treats, there isn’t one that owners should absolutely never feed their horses.

“Horses are picky eaters, and often they turn their noses up at something new,” Staniar says. “So we experiment with flavors such as molasses and anise because horses like them.”

And though apples, carrots, and peppermints might be common favorites, some owners prefer to feed their horses homemade treats because they believe they are healthier. Staniar reminds us, however, that treats from the kitchen might not be more beneficial than those bought off the feed store’s shelf.

“I’d rather have a homemade cookie than a commercial one, too, but I have some concerns about homemade cookies (for horses) because I don’t know what ingredients are used to make them,” he says. “I’ll bet that a nutritionist has worked on the ingredients for the commercial cookies.”

Indeed, manufacturers involve nutritionists in treat development and testing, and product packaging designers make sure each bag provides information to help consumers use the treat properly, says Katie Young, PhD, senior nutritionist and product manager for equine technical solutions at Purina Animal Nutrition, in Gray Summit, Missouri. That includes general feeding ­recommendations.

Although feeding instructions are not comprehensive, says Young, they do carry the message to feed as a reward or treat to adult horses, and ingredients are also listed on the packaging.

Timing of Treats

Whatever food items they prefer, Foster says to consider your horses’ natural feeding cycle when selecting treats. Because by nature they eat all day, she says, it is not necessary to provide what she calls “high-value” food as part of their training.

“Many horses are just as motivated with chaff or hay as something less high-value and … something that they have to take time to chew,” Foster says. “There’s a certain satisfaction (for horses) in ­chewing.”

She also suggests owners discourage begging or other unwanted behaviors simply by refraining from feeding treats by hand.

“Instead, put the food into a bucket and offer it,” she says.

In addition, Foster suggests owners reward horses after an extensive grooming session in a way that does not include feeding a treat.

“For example, when you give a horse a bath, you can reward him instead by letting him graze for 5 or 10 minutes,” she says. “If the bath ends with a positive experience, the horse’s memory of it will be more positive, as well.”

If you do feed special foods or commercial treats that are rich and high in calories, Foster recommends changing the kind of reward you use for training to one that’s lower-value than what you offer in other situations.

Finally, horse lovers should practice good treat-feeding protocol by always obtaining owners’ permission before feeding their horses treats—or anything else, for that matter. That means refraining from passing out treats to every horse in the barn.

“First of all, horses in a boarding barn know that they will get treats from a certain person, and they will come to demand it by popping out of a corner, calling, or even kicking the wall of a stall,” Foster says. “Also, you never know if a horse is on a special diet or has special health issues and should not be fed any treats in the first place.”

Take-Home Message

Ultimately, Staniar believes owners should learn what comprises the bulk of their horses’ diets before deciding how treats figure into their dietary scheme.

“The order is—in addition to water—forage, grain or feed, and supplements,” he says. “So pay attention to the largest portion of your horse’s diet and know about the quality and quantity of the hay you’re feeding and the quality of the pasture (your horse is on), then pay attention to supplements they get, including treats.”

At the same time, Foster believes owners should understand their own reasons for adding treats to their horses’ diets.

“Remember, horses don’t need treats—in fact some people don’t feed their horses treats at all,” Foster says. “But many of us want to give our horses treats partly because we associate food with building and maintaining relationships, and that’s okay. Just be sure that when you do feed treats to your horse, to do it mindfully.”