Healthy Treats: To Treat or Not to Treat

By Catherine Bird

Tippy saying Yuck! Tippy is not impressed when offered a basket of junk food from Stephanie, declining chocolate, pastries and other treats

There are horse people who don't treat their horses at all, other horse owners stay with the traditional apples and carrots while the more adventurous treat anything from a custard Danish to beer.

I had a week where the horses I was massaging were being treated to a wide variety of treats. I thought the horse I rode was spoilt rotten with his loads of apples, but what I will list in this article may "spoil" a horse in more ways than one.

Caffeine and Swabbing, want to risk testing positive for prohibitive substances?

A horse had a strained back from her rather large abdomen. I discussed her diet with her owner and it all seemed to be a fairly simple diet, not one that would cause her to be overweight. Then it came out that her favourite treat was a custard Danish. Well that's enough to help me gain a few extra kilos, so no wonder this horse was having trouble staying trim! Her owner was reluctant to deprive her of this treat, so a compromise was achieved - she got one every few months. Her horse's waistline found a new trim line and she was given some belly lifts to get her to strengthen her back muscles.

A high level competitor was distressed having to pull her horse out of a competition where she may have been swabbed as her young daughter gave her performance horse a large chocolate bar the day before the event. Feeding your horse chocolate can cause him to register positive for the presence of caffeine. Chocolate also contains theobromine, which is a stimulant that will show positive in a drug test.

These two incidences had me off on a quest to find out what sort of foodstuffs owners considered a "treat" for their horses. I posted a request to several mail lists on the Internet. The replies were surprising and in some cases alarming.

Tummy Aches and Bad Habits

Rusty couldn't wait to sample some of the treats offered by Josie, which consisted of apples, carrots and muffins.

Tina didn't personally feed treats herself but relayed a story of a friend who owned a very expensive Hanoverian gelding. She competed at medium level show jumping and was considering selling him, as the horse was capable of much more than she felt comfortable doing. However, this horse had a taste for licorice and jellybeans and one day was not well after a lesson and some of these "treats". A few hours later he was being rushed to surgery for colic. The veterinarian explained that these treats caused a lot of gas, and with the increase of gases, the bowel became twisted.

Jacqui's childhood pony had a taste for custard (a dairy product). He used to go to the kitchen window and drink the custard from the sink. This may be a case of bad behaviour more so than a dietary problem. Once a habit like this is developed you may find other delights disappearing from within reach of the window! A horse cannot digest dairy products, so you may be giving your horse a severe case of scours. And if your horse takes something he can't swallow he may choke.

This raises the issue of teaching poor habits. Feeding treats has to be done carefully as you don't need to be attacked by a greedy horse because he thinks you have a peppermint or sugar cube in your pocket. I was recently massaging a horse in a stable and he was normally a temperamental young horse. This day the groom felt bad that the horse was late for his lunch, though it wasn't bothering the horse, and she gave him a carrot while I was working on him. This got him excited about food and difficult to handle, and I had to ask the groom to leave the area so the horse would settle down enough for me to finish his assessment.

Herbivores, Not Carnivores

Ryan is a thriving 21-year-old thoroughbred who loves his stroll along this quiet outer suburb of Sydney.

Ruth in British Columbia was giving her two horses "Mother Hubbard's Low Fat Dog Biscuits", usually a couple in the morning and a couple in the evening. They were much cheaper than the horse treats, however they had garlic flavouring so she did complain about the horse's breath. If you want to follow Ruth's idea check with the manufacturer first, as a treat designed for a carnivore such as a dog may have ingredients unsuitable for the herbivore horse.

Then there is Lin's horse, Brodie, who always enjoys a can of Coke but for some reason won't drink Pepsi. Sue had a horse that loved chip butties made from french fries and white bread. Samantha's horse had a favourite treat in pretzels, and one last contributor mentioned she fed her horse Kentucky Fried Chicken, with bone removed of course.

We have to be careful feeding processed food to any animal. They are not designed to digest it and don't have the digestive enzymes to recognise it as a food their bodies can utilise. And to be fair to the horse, they are not meat-eaters; they are, by nature and action, herbivores.

Caution should be used when feeding horses animal protein as it can increase the toxins in the body, and if the horse has a poorly functioning lymphatic system, you will find its body accumulating fat and becoming less efficient in energy production. Also, discarding bones for the dogs to chew on where a horse grazes could leave your horse vulnerable to botulism.

The same goes for sugar; horses do not have the enzymes to deal with it so it is difficult for them to metabolise and break it down in the hindgut. The bacteria needed to deal with these foods are not present and this can lead to imbalances over time. Low-grade infections that do not clear up, a higher sensitivity to antibiotics and irregular bowel movements, as well as a lowered immune system may also eventuate after long term feeding of sugar treats.

If you are feeding some of these foodstuffs you are risking the occurrence of malabsorption in the digestive tract and as a result your horse may suffer from something as simple as a dull coat or as serious as dehydration. Sugar imbalances can also make your horse prone to erratic behaviour. A sudden influx of a sugar into the system can hype a horse and make him unmanageable. An inexperienced rider who is new to horses and thinks he is giving his horse a treat may find the horse difficult to handle or even dangerous in its heightened state.

Putting all these poor dietary examples aside, let's focus on some good treats. If you are going to try your own recipes, still avoid processed flour and sugar.

These recipes contain molasses, a product of sugar, to sweeten them so be wary of feeding too many. When giving these to your horses, remember they are a treat and not their staple diet.

Horse Cookies

1 cup grated carrot

1 apple, grated

2 Tablespoons corn oil

1/4 cup molasses

1 tsp. salt

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheet. In a large bowl, mix CARROT, APPLE, CORN OIL and MOLASSES together. Then fold in SALT, OATS and FLOUR until well mixed. Spread dough out in one big piece on the cookie sheet. Score dough with a knife to make it easier to break apart after baking, or try rolling dough out and cutting shapes with cookie cutters. Bake for 20 minutes or until brown. Let cool, break apart and serve.

Microwave Horse Cookies

2 cups flour,

5 cups oatmeal,

1/2 cup corn oil,

1 clove garlic

1 cup diced carrots

Combine ingredients in bowl, form into small balls, press down with a spoon, place in microwave pan or sheet and microwave on high for 6 minutes per batch.

Fresh foods

Carrots are a moist, tasty treat and they also have health benefits. Carrots are high in Vitamin A and are a good source of potassium, vitamin C, and complex carbohydrates. They also are foodstuff that worms do not like. They are more effective against worms if added to feed grated, though your horse will enjoy just taking a fresh carrot from your hand. If you are buying carrots from a general green grocer, wash them before giving them to your horse, as they may have been treated or cleaned with harsh products before getting to you. Carrots have been traditionally included in diets by herbologists for their nutritive and antioxidant properties, and they are high in crude fibre, potassium, vitamin A and sodium.

Apples, like carrots, are a good source of potassium, vitamin C, and complex carbohydrates. Apples contain more moisture than carrots and are a quick and safe source of fructose. If you have a horse that is used to a high sugar treat diet, apples are an excellent way to wean him off these treats. This is a safer way of giving your horse an energy hit as apples contain pectin. The pectin in the apples absorbs the sugars and carbohydrates in the diet and releases them in the intestinal tract over a longer period of time, thereby increasing energy efficiency and producing a much slower rise in blood sugar levels. The added bonus from apples as a treat compared to sugary sweets is less erratic behaviour. Not only do apples taste good but also they contain flavonoids (naturally occurring plant compounds that have antioxidant properties).

Pears are a softer alternative for older horses. Some older horses with poor or fewer teeth find carrots and apples difficult to eat because they are hard on their mouths. Pears can be eaten without much effort, are moist and juicy, are sweet enough to feel like a treat, and are a healthy alternative to sugar cubes.

Others such as sweet potatoes are a less commonly given treat but they are nutritious. Sweet potatoes are high in vitamins E and A and as they are grown in the ground, they are a good source of minerals such as calcium, iron, and potassium. Other fruits and berries may appeal to your horse; some horses like grapes, mulberries, cherries, orange wedges and even some melons. Be sure that the treats are not chemically treated; organic is best.

Hand Grazing

A great treat you can give your horse is a stroll along a lane or quiet roadway that does not suffer a large traffic flow. They love the tall fresh grass and your horse may surprise you by selecting an herb while grazing. Most the our common herbs are considered weeds in this environment, though keep a watchful eye as some domesticated horses may have lost their instinctual ability to be able to distinguish between a good herb and a toxic weed.

Now that you have thought about the treats you would like your horse to sample, you need to introduce them slowly. Be careful when you start feeding your horse with a ration of carrots or apples. Carrots have a high glycemic index and recent studies suggest the sugars in carrots may be detrimental if a horse suffers Cushing's Disease. It is recommended no more than four or five carrots be fed a day. I prefer a horse to be 'treated' irregularly so there is not an expectation of a treat whenever you spend time together. When my box of organic vegetables arrived each week, I would keep the carrots and apples aside for the horses.

As a therapist I refrain from giving treats to any of my clients' horses. I do this because I don't want the horse to presume I will offer him a treat with his massage, nor do I want to give a horse a treat if doing so does not fit in with the owners' ideas of handling and feeding.

It is important that you do not give treats to another owner's horse. You don't know anything about the other horse; he may have an intolerance to certain foodstuffs, or may be on a medication that would be reactive to whatever you wish to give him. Recently there was a pony that lived in a paddock where school children passed by on their way to school. He was popular and many of the children fed their sandwiches to him each day. This poor pony got so fat you could see the fat deposits under his skin. This act of kindness placed his health at risk.

The key to treating your horse is to remember that a treat is a treat or a reward, not a standard food on demand that your horse has come to expect every time you go for a ride. That is a recipe for bad behaviour, because you leave yourself open to being nipped or having your horse misbehave because you have not got his sugar hit on hand.

Remember your horse thrives best on what he would eat naturally; the healthier the treat, the healthier your horse.

Catherine Bird

Healthy Happy Horses, Naturally.

PO Box 670, Randwick, 2031. NSW Australia

About the author:

Catherine Bird is a Sydney-based qualified Aromatherapist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist specializing in treating animals. Her clients include the NSW Mounted Police as well as show jumpers, eventers, endurance, dressage, and race horses, along with dogs and humans. Catherine is a member of the International Association of Equine Sports Massage Therapists.

Catherine is authoring a series of books about natural therapies for horses, drawing on case histories gathered from her experience. "Horse Scents, Making Sense with Your Horse Using Aromatherapy" is now available. Catherine has worked and studied both in Australia and in the United States with some of the world's foremost equine therapists.

Recipes courtesy of Ohio Hooved Animal Humane Society (OHAHS). OHAHS is preparing a cookbook which will contain approximately 400 recipes including a section for "Horse Snacks", special treats for you to make for your horses, plus money saving recipes for fly sprays and washes. They would like to feature your recipes (along with your name) so dig up that recipe for fly spray, body wash, poultice, etc. and send them in. They would also like some "Trail Riding Snacks" and campfire cooking dishes. For more information and to submit your recipes, visit

Ohio Hooved Animal Humane Society (OHAHS)

PO Box 1176 

Hartville, Ohio 44632