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Feeding Tips: Treats in Your Horse's Diet


It is very common for horse caretakers to feed treats to their horses. In fact, the American Pet Product Association reported that horse owners spent more on treats for their horses than they did for their household pets in 2016 (Francis, Thompson-Witrick, and Perry 2021).


There are many reasons to feed your horse treats:

  • positive reinforcement training

  • to add variety to the diet

  • to make them (and you) happy!


While there are concerns with hand feeding treats leading to horses who nip or bite, research has noted that hand feeding treats is not associated with either of those undesirable oral behaviours (Hockenhull and Creighten, 2010). In fact, positive reinforcement training can teach horses how to be polite around treats, as they understand what behaviour will be rewarded with a treat, rather than getting frustrated or overexcited, and escalating to biting (Hockenhull and Creighton, 2010). The horse will only become nippy around treats if they are reinforced for nipping - ie, they nip at you and then are given a treat following display of the unwanted behaviour (Henderson, 2015).


While hand feeding treats will not make your horse nippy, there are some important aspects to consider around treats: how much and what type to feed, and are certain treats better than others?


How many treats can I give?


Consider the diet on a percent BW basis. Forage will make up 1.5-2.5% of their BW, on a dry matter basis (weight without the water content) depending on the hay quality and the horse’s requirements. A smaller proportion, 0.5-1.0%, may make up concentrated sources of nutrients needed to top off requirements. Consider treats as part of the concentrate section - while treats may not add nutritional value, they are still adding to the diet (the energy content in particular).


As such, the amount of treats that you feed will depend on your horse and the energy content of the treat, but the quantity should always be limited. As with grain feeding, you do not want to feed more than 0.5% of their BW or 2-4 g/kg BW of starch in one meal, so as to avoid starch overload, colic or founder (NRC, 2007).


Treat Considerations


When selecting a treat to feed, it is important to consider the following:

  • Presence of individual health concerns

  • Preferences

  • Toxic foods


Presence of Individual Health Concerns

While low sugar treats are more healthy options for all horses, those with insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, pituitary pars intermedia disorder (PPID) and obese horses should only be fed treats that have less than 10-12% non-structural carbs (starch + sugars) to avoid the risk of a laminitis flare-up (Geor, Harris, and Coenen, 2013). As these horses are also likely in a weight management program, treats need to be restricted.


Forage based treats, that are hay cube and molasses-free beet pulp based, are healthier options (as long as NSC content is low enough for the IR/EMS/PPID/obese horses!). For positive reinforcement training, hay pellets are popular, and as they are forage, can be fed at a higher feeding rate than other treats, just be sure to calculate these as a proportion of the horse's diet. If a feedstuff from the horse’s diet is being fed as treats, such as hay pellets or feeds that come in cube form, weighing or portioning out the horse’s ration and putting part of it aside for training is a great strategy to ensure the horse is not receiving “bonus” calories.


Equine Treat Preferences

While preferences will vary between individuals, studies have found that different breeds have different preferences (Janczarek et al, 2018), and while human purchase intent was often based on visual appearance, equine preference is dictated more by smell, suggesting that human selection of treats may not reflect horse’s preferences (Francis, Thompson-Witrick, and Perry, 2020; 2021). Noting this preference may help in selection of high value treats for training.


Toxic Foods for Horses

While fruits and vegetables are safe, avoid foods such as onions, potatoes, cabbage, brussel sprouts, as well as any plant in the nightshade family (KER, 2014). While a few human grade treats, such as mints or sugar cubes, are alright (except for horses on a low NSC diet), avoid sugar-free candies containing Xylitol.


“Nutra-” or “Functional-” treats - worth the hype?


In the pet food industry, “nutra-treats”, or treats advertised to have nutraceutical/health benefits, are very popular - but it is important to approach such treats with a critical lens. At the recommended feeding rate, it is unlikely that the animal will consume the therapeutic dose of the active ingredient - for an example product, a dog would have to consume 18 treats (at 38 kcals per treat) to get the therapeutic dose of the active ingredient!


Let’s go through an equine example for generic “Joint Health Treats, scientifically formulated with MSM”.


The feeding instructions for these treats are 40-80g/day, and the MSM concentration is 9091 mg/kg feed. Assuming you feed the maximum feeding dose of 0.08 kg per day, your horse would be consuming 727 mg or 0.727g.


A dose of 8 mg/kg BW, or around 4 g/day for a 500 kg horse, was found to manage inflammation associated with jumping exercise (Marañón et al, 2008).


So even at the highest feeding amount, it will not deliver a dose that is scientifically proven to work. Is it possible that lower levels may still work? Perhaps! However, a study examining the effect of a supplement containing 2.5 g of MSM/day - so even 3.4x the amount from the treats - did not improve stiffness associated with arthritis in aged horses (Higler et al, 2013).


Interestingly, a supplement containing 7.5 g of MSM, almost 2x the amount from the jumping exercise study, did not help manage mild exercise-related inflammation in mature, sound horses (Much et al, 2020). Higher rates of supplementation may be required, but the contradictory evidence from the literature suggests more equine research is necessary.


If you want to achieve a certain benefit through nutrition, that should be driven from the bulk of the animal’s diet or through careful supplement selection, not from treats! If you’re looking for help selecting a supplement, or strategies for driving a specific benefit through the diet, check out our Product Breakdown, Recommendation Plan & Nutrition Consulting services!


Summary

Treats are a fun way to spoil your horse - just remember:

  • Limit quantities to avoid excess calories & sugar in the diet!

  • Select treats with <10-12% NSC for horses with IR/EMS/PPID/obese.

  • Equine treat preferences are driven by smell, so don't let the human preference for visual appearance limit your options!

  • Be critical of treats with claims to support certain health benefits (and optimize your horse's daily ration if you want to achieve them).

Careful selection and limited feeding of treats can help keep your horse healthy & happy!


 

REFERENCES


Geor, JR., Harris, PA., Coenen, M. 2013. Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Health, Welfare and Performance.


Francis, J., Thompson-Witrick, K.,Perry, EB. 2020. President Oral Presentation Pick: Sensory analysis of horse treats: a comparison between horses and humans. Journal of Animal Science 98(4): 91


Francis, JM., Thompson-Witrick, KA., Perry, EB. 2021. Palatability of Horse Treats: Comparing the Preferences of Horses and Humans. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 99(2021): 103357.


Hockenhull, J., Creighton, E. 2010. Unwanted oral investigative behaviour in horses: A note on the relationship between mugging behaviour, hand-feeding titbits and clicker training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 127(2010): 104-107.


Henderson, AJZ. 2015. Preventing Biting in Young Horses. Horse Sport - July 2015.


Higler, MH, Brommer, H., L’Ami, JJ., de Grauw, JC., Nielen, M., van Weeren, PR., Laverty, S., Barneveld, A., Back, W. 2013. The effects of three-month oral supplementation with a nutraceutical and exercise on the locomotor pattern of aged horses. Equine Veterinary Journal 46(5): 611-617. https://beva.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/evj.12182


Janczarek, I., Wilk, I., Pietrzak, S., Liss, M., Tkaczyk, S. 2018. Taste Preferences of Horses in Relation to Their Breed and Sex. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 64 (2018): 59-64.


Maranon, G., Munoz-Escassi, B., Manley, W.,Garcia, C., Cayado, P., Sanchez de la Muela, M., Olabarri, B., Leon, R., Vara, E. 2008. The effect of methyl sulphonyl methane supplementation on biomarkers of oxidative stress in sport horses following jumping exercise. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 50(45). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1751-0147-50-45


Much, ML., Leatherwood, JL., Martinez, RE., Silvers, BL., Basta, CF., Gray, LF., Bradbery, AN. 2020. Evaluation of an oral joint supplement on gait kinematics and biomarkers of cartilage metabolism and inflammation in mature riding horses. Translational Animal Science 4(3). https://doi.org/10.1093/tas/txaa150


NRC. 2007. Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 2007. https://doi.org/10.17226/11653.



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