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Healthy Horse Treats:
Be Aware of Ingredients and the Safety of Your Equine’s Health

Most animal trainers, whether they work with dogs and cats or lions and monkeys, use some form of a food treat as a reward. Snacks and treats for horses are becoming almost as popular as dog bones and catnip, with more companies than ever putting out products to delight the horse’s taste-buds. Most people who are accustomed to buying goodies for their dogs and cats are starting to do the same for their horses, using treats as a reward for learning a new trick or skill, or to tempt a reluctant animal to come closer.
However, one doesn’t have to buy a specially formulated horse snack to give treats. A good treat is anything that the horse enjoys, from those scientifically formulated and nutritionally-balanced nuggets to a carrot stick. Even if the horse simply enjoys its regular grain, it can be given as a treat. What makes it a reward is the way that it is given, usually by hand, and that it’s offered outside of regular feeding times.
Feed stores now often have shelves set aside just for horse treats. From handmade horse candies and biscuits and manufactured vegetable-flavored nuggets to old-fashioned sugar cubes and grain cubes, there is a wide selection to choose from. Commonly, horse treats contain oats, hay, bran, a sweetener such as sugar, sucrose, or molasses, and some kind of flavoring. Read the treat’s nutritional label and try to find a tasty treat that is not too nutritionally different from your horse’s regular diet. This will make sure that the treat doesn’t upset the horse’s delicate digestive system.

Treats should be given sparingly to prevent upset to the horse’s digestion. One ounce daily is usually a good amount that won’t cause problems. However, for owners who tend to give more than this, selecting a horse treat with good nutritional value, as well as being firm about only giving a certain amount of treats daily, is the best way to avoid gastric upset. Treats that contain hay and grain products as the first ingredients on the list are safest for owners who might go overboard on treats.

Other tips for safely giving your horse treats are:
  • Discuss your horse’s diet with a nutritionist or your veterinarian to make sure your horse is getting all the nutrition it needs. Then you can safely give your horse treats. Two to four ounces of snacks a day is more than sufficient, because giving too many treats can interfere with normal grazing and meals and cause weight gain or gastric upset.

  • Remember, treats are not supplements. They are not part of the horse’s daily ration. Supplements provide a necessary, daily source of nutrients. If the horse’s treats are discontinued, it shouldn’t cause any deficiency in the horse’s diet. Supplements, while occasionally very tasty, should not be used as treats, because overuse of these can cause toxicity or gastric disturbances.

  • Read the list of ingredients and choose a treat that contains ingredients that are in your horse’s normal feed. This is especially helpful for picky or colic-prone animals.

  • Give treats sparingly and at different times. Some horses can become aggressive if they are not given a treat at the habitual time, or can nose at jacket pockets searching for a treat. Some will even bite if they don’t receive the treat! Also, give treats one-on-one. Horses can get excited and aggressive if they feel they must compete for treats.

  • Horses have a blind spot just in front of their noses. Keep this in mind when selecting treats. Chose one that is large enough for the horse to lip from your hand to prevent nipped fingers. If offering a treat to a strange horse, it is safest to offer it from a bucket or place it in the feeding trough.

  • Treats should be firm enough not to crumble, but not so hard that they are difficult to chew.

  • Avoid storing treats in containers that can be easily tipped over, are not water--tight, or can be chewed. Flat-bottomed, re-closable, rodent-proof containers are best to prevent contamination.

  • Finally, treats do not have to come from the feed store. Apples, carrots, or even handfuls of grass can be great rewards. Just remember, as with manufactured treats, not to overfeed.

Read the next horse nutrition article on Checkoff Programs for Horse Feeds.
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