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Horse Treats: Handle With Care

Horse Treats: Handle With Care

By Pat Raia

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 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.

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