This is a challenging topic as it involves looking into the owner animal interaction. It is a very interesting dynamic since one wonders who benefits most from the use of treats; animal or owner? A treat is an event or something that is unusual and gives great pleasure both to the giver and the receiver. In the context of this article we are dealing with a food item and most horses/ponies presented with such an item outwith normal feeding times will be quite “pleased”. We use these food treats as rewards, encouragement, and of course, when we just can’t say “no” to the animal hanging its head over the stable door/field gate. It is undeniable that horse owners really like to feed their animals and unfortunately this can have dire consequences for the animal although it is usually more apparent with cats and dogs. Overprovision of treats leads very quickly to obesity in these animals-killing with kindness!
Preparation of food for your horse/dog/etc is very satisfactory particularly if delivery of said meal results in the animal consuming it with enthusiasm. The latter is often used by horse owners as an important criterion of dietary adequacy. Rapid consumption = satisfactory commercial product. This might seem a little off-track but, rapid consumption of horse food should be the last thing you want for your horse. More important would be that the horse eats some of its allocation then wanders off for a chat with the stable cat that has taken up residence in its box. Eventually the horse would return for a little more food and so on, thereby mimicking the desired little and often principle. I am sure there would be just reward for anyone who could design such a diet but would the prejudiced/sceptical owner buy such a diet if their horse did not immediately consume it?? The treat, by its very nature, is only fed in gram quantities so in some ways it is part of the “little” in the little and often mantra.
What role does a treat have in the overall ration? In most cases nothing! Some people become very excited about the possibility that a treat will imbalance the diet. When fed in gram quantities this is simply not possible as a smidgen of chocolate will do no harm unless of course your horse is a performance horse when it would produce a positive drug test. All it needs are a few Smarties for disqualification. Thus, any treat containing chocolate is a definite “no, no” for competing horses. The classic treat for a horse always used to be a few sugar lumps trading on the fact that horses all seem to have a “sweet tooth”. A horse with Cushings or is laminitis-prone or insulin-resistant or suffering from Equine Metabolic Disease should not be fed a diet rich in water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) but a couple of sugar cubes? Clearly it would be a nonsense to deprive such a horse of a moment of sugary bliss. Equally, spring grass might be off the overall dietary plan for health reasons but it should not stop an owner from offering a horse a handful of fresh grass. One hundred gram of grass contains 86g of water and of the remaining 14g of dry material there can be no more than 7g WSC, hardly a meaningful amount. So feeding treats requires that you have the right perspective in terms of what they contribute to the overall diet which in most cases is nothing.
So what 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? If you subscribe to the view that treats may create a problem of some sort one can “play safe” by simply taking the horse a few grams of its existing diet. This may seem like cheating/conning the horse out of a “real” treat but in reality horses/ponies are not the brightest when it comes to selection between different food resources. For example, why do horses voluntarily consume yew and ragwort? Size matters! So whatever you select to use as a treat it must be small. Chunks of apple or carrot make excellent treats so long as they are fresh: bendy carrots should go in the bin together with bruised apples. It is noteworthy that carrots used to be fed by the kilo to farm horses when they were fed simply on bran, hay, turnips, oats and so on. Racing at Kelso, Scotland has often been sponsored by a carrot producer and guess what feed was supplied together with the cash prizes? It is common for bags of carrots to be sold for animal feed as the supermarkets are so fussy in terms of the “correct” shape so there are many carrots that are rejected for human use.
Healthy horse treats might be regarded as those that do not contain additives, preservatives (calcium and sodium propionate), colourants or artificial flavourings. Ideally they would be “natural”, digestible and palatable. This is beginning to sound like a polemic on organic food! It is nonsense because I can imagine making a healthy horse treat based on dehydrated grass as a base blended with vitamins and minerals held together with a little molasses. This would be a wonderful treat for horses on a forage-only diet as it would secure their nutrient intake in situations where it might be less than optimal. The only natural materials would be the dehydrated grass and the minerals with most vitamins being manufactured and of course, molasses is an industrial by-product.
Treats are produced by feed manufacturers and, as a result, are available in many different formats providing you with a plethora of choice. Some are designed to fulfil a particular need including additives such as glucosamine that will help animals with joint problems. For these special purpose treats it is important to read the manufacturers guidelines in order that correct dosages are met.
There has been considerable research effort directed toward determining flavour preferences of horses. However, in my mind the results are rather equivocal. Horses would not eat nutmeg and coriander flavoured products. The latter herb is used in a lot of Asian/Chinese cooking but from my experiences of coriander I take sides with the horses! Three favourites were fenugreek, banana and cherry. Now, I find this hard to comprehend as in my limited experience one has to have had exposure to different tastes before developing a liking for one or other. I cannot imagine horses harvesting cherries and neither can I see them peeling bananas! Fenugreek is a leguminous annual Asian herb with aromatic seeds used in making curry, imitation vanilla flavouring, and some veterinary medicines. Originally it was made into a Grecian hay coming to life about the 14th Century… though it is hard to imagine UK horses coming across it. So it is interesting that these substances appeal to the horse and are palatable but I suppose if they eat ragwort then anything goes… Apple and carrot flavours did not receive the accolades you might have expected, horses preferring the more exotic flavours.
In conclusion, when someone offers you a fantastic deal/bargain we say the well-known idiom “I would bite his hand off” meaning of course, one would accept with alacrity. Thus I fail to understand why so many horses develop the habit of biting you when offered treats by hand-frustration perhaps? To quote the other idiom, “Why bite the hand that feeds”. Horses like treats but sometimes have a funny way of showing it!!