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Healthy Horse Treats
By Liza Holland
From simple store-bought peppermints to gourmet homemade "cookies," owners and feed manufacturers have come up with countless types of treats for our equine friends. We use these as rewards, encouragement, and when we just can't say "no" to that lovable face hanging over the stall door. But just how good (or bad) are these tidbits for horses? We caught up with Bob Coleman, PhD, equine extension professor at the University of Kentucky, and Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS, research nutritionist for Buckeye Nutrition/Mars Horsecare US Inc., to answer that question.
What is a "Healthy" Treat?
I once purchased a "healthy treat" that was basically a complete vitamin and mineral product for horses, similar to multivitamins that many people take daily. The concept was excellent: to provide a treat for horses on forage-only diets that would also meet their nutritional needs. The problem was that most of my horses wouldn't eat the treat after smelling it, and those that did spit it back out almost immediately. I noticed it did have a medicinal odor, and being a "nutrition geek" I tasted one of the treats and was reminded of multivitamins I took as a child. I considered adding something to make them more palatable, such as molasses (the "sweet" in sweet feed), to mask the odor and flavor. However, a friend then told me that molasses, with its high sugar content, was neither natural nor healthy (it turns out, though, that studies have shown molasses actually has lower sugar content than good-quality forage).
So with all the conflicting information available, how do you know what makes a treat "healthy" for a horse? "Any feed with a defined nutrient profile can work, as long as the horse owner remembers that it is a treat and should only be given in very small amounts," Coleman says.
Janicki describes healthy horse treats as those that do not contain additives, preservatives, or artificial flavorings. "They are all-natural, highly digestible, and tasty," she explains. "They are not intended to replace the normal grain or hay ration, but fed at a small amount per day will not adversely affect the horse's nutritional program in any way."
Commercially Manufactured Treats
Many feed and supplement companies manufacture horse treats in addition to their other products. Janicki notes that some produce all-natural, no-sugar-added treats in a variety of flavors. Companies also manufacture treats that can be fed to horses needing certain supplements. Some joint support treats, for example, contain glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and methylsulfonylmethane. These are available at feed stores and in equine catalogs. While Coleman does not recommend a specific brand, he does suggest owners make informed commercial treat-buying decisions based on the nutrient analysis and ingredient list on the label.
Many feed companies print recommendations for daily amounts of their treats directly on the packaging. "These recommendations are at a level that will provide maximum benefit without adversely affecting the horse's main nutrition program," Janicki says. "Most feed companies provide a contact phone number or website on their packaging, so an owner can contact the manufacturer directly to get (further) nutrition and ingredient information."
In addition to reading the ingredient list, Janicki says owners searching for healthy horse treats should be aware of common additives, preservatives, and flavoring used. These include calcium propionate, sodium propionate, ascorbic acid, and artificial flavor (i.e., apple or peppermint) or color (i.e., red or pink). She also recommends checking to see if sources of flavors advertised are included in the product. If a treat is advertised as carrot-flavored, for instance, carrots should be high on the ingredient list.
No matter what treat you choose, it serves little purpose if horses don't find it palatable. Researchers have conducted several studies to determine horse flavor preferences. Goodwin et al. published a study in 2005 in which they attempted to find flavors horses liked, compared to flavors feed manufacturers commonly use in their products. The researchers fed 15 different powdered flavors to eight horses and found three flavors that some of the horses refused to eat: Echinacea (an herbaceous flowering plant believed to be an immunostimulant), nutmeg, and coriander. Of the remaining 12 flavors, the top three favorites were fenugreek (commonly used to flavor curries and once used as a hay conditioner in Greece), banana, and cherry. Carrot and peppermint came in sixth and seventh, respectively. Results of other trials have shown that some horses prefer the flavor anise, while Kennedy et al. determined in 1999 that horses preferred cherry flavoring over both apple and citrus.
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