Commercial horse treats have been around for only about 15 years, but they’re big business. There are now several dozen different commercial treats, starting with the familiar crunchy cookie and ranging into a variety of shapes, flavors and ingredients. A few even claim therapeutic benefits.
Some treats are manufactured by big corporations but even more are cottage-industry products, the result of a home recipe that may have started as a concoction for a favorite horse. A couple of makers we talked to for this article had to leave the phone for a moment to stir something. Some of these varied recipes catch on but others quickly disappear. Often, whether a treat may find its way to your tack trunk is as much about the marketing as it is the treat itself.
Most people who feed treats just seek perked ears and a nicker when they pull a lump of sugar from a pocket or rustle the plastic on a peppermint. We’re talking a snack here, not the main course. The purpose of this survey is not to find which treats are the best nutritionally for our horses but to find which ones they most want to eat. At the same time, we also want to find the best value and convenience if we are going to spend money on some type of treat other than sugar cubes, apples and carrots.
We concluded that most horses fall into three groups. Cookie monsters belong to by far the largest group, followed by moderately picky horses and then those few horses that eye everything in a hand with suspicion. Some horses will have specific dislikes, such as a particular flavoring.
We started with a panel of equine testers that gobbled up just about everything we handed them. It was definitely fun, but we didn’t learn much. We then sought out some truly discriminating palates. Most turned down at least half the treats offered, and one mare would eat only three of the two dozen she was given although she was always willing to try something new. More often than not, the pickier testers were mares.
We also considered some specific types, such as horses that didn’t like sugar, horses that wouldn’t eat a bran mash and horses that had never before been hand fed. The flavored sugar cubes from Primrose Acres did appeal to a couple of horses that won’t regularly accept sugar, so they can be worth trying.
Horses that hadn’t been fed treats before seemed to clearly respond to the smell of the treat — either positively or negatively. They were generally attracted to treats with molasses.
There seems to be an X factor in what treats horses will like, and that factor depends on conditioning. For example, European horses may be fed garlic in various sources more often than American horses, so that element will make a treat more attractive to a horse in England than it will to one in Tennessee. Horses that are fed sweet feed will show interest in treats drenched in molasses.
If your horse is a cookie monster, consider both price and convenience. Cookies can range from less than $1 per pound in bulk to more than $12 a pound for fancier brands in small packages. But the price per treat varies even more within that broad range. For example, a $6 pound of small Hilton Herballs will yield a lot more treats than a pound of Giddyap Girls cookies for the same price. However, Giddyap Girl cookies will snap into three pieces.
Another consideration is convenience. Do you want a jar for your tack box, a 25-pound box for your entire stable, or a gift for your horse’s friend in the next stall' Do you want a treat that will stay intact in your pocket and not crumble under pressure or melt under sweat while you’re riding' Do you want a small “training” treat that you can feed a horse with a bit in its mouth or that you can use with a “clicker”'
And, then there’s shelf life. A purchaser has no way of knowing how long a product has been stacked at the tack shop unless it’s started to gather dust. Some products do carry an expiration or “sell by” date, but you can expect most of the hard-baked products to last up to a year in the right storage conditions.
Those “right” conditions mean a place that is cool and dry. If you’re going to buy large containers to save money, you need to be able to use them up in the foreseeable future and store them away from dripping hoses, direct sunlight and knawing mice.
Many treat containers are clear. This is fine to keep out the damp, but if they’re left where the sun can reach them, the contents can become quickly damaged beyond the point that is safe to feed to your horse.
It’s not the best thing nutritionally to give your horse large amounts of treats, except maybe carrots. However, there’s no need to get paranoid about a few lumps of sugar, several cookies or a handful of Fruit Loops each day. However, there are a few times where the owner should place close attention to the ingredients.
Some horses can have an allergy to anything that contains wheat flour (gut signs, gas, bloating, diarrhea). Even a small amount of grain and sugar can cause problems for horses that are cresty and prone to laminitis.
You should also be aware of treats that you give your horse before a competition. On USAEq’s long list of forbidden/masking substances are herbs and flavorings that can show up in commercial treats. Some of these “test,” and some don’t. The names on the list, and the technology to test for them, can change even more quickly than new products can come on the market. We think it’s best to stick to treats with plain grains and molasses at a competition.
In addition, some treats will create pink foam around the muzzle. If fed just before the horse goes in the ring, the foam could be mistaken for bleeding in the mouth, and the horse could be eliminated.
We don’t really want to consider here whether, or even how, you feed treats.
If you’ve read this far, you are immune to the arguments that horses don’t need treats or shouldn’t be fed them by hand.
Beyond the consideration that we think it’s just plain fun to hand feed a horse, there are also practical reasons. Certain treats, such as sugar cubes, can be useful as rewards for training if the timing is precise. Treats can be used to entice a horse to take certain therapies (medicine with a “cookie chaser”) or to distract a horse during an uncomfortable procedure. Peppermints encased in plastic will condition the horse to react to the sound of unwrapping (“the siren sound of plastic”) just long enough to give a shot or slip on a twitch. Lay-up barns often stock a large box of treats to allow handlers to routinely inspect medical problems.
It’s nice that some treats contain vitamins, minerals, herbs and other beneficial things. But these elements also run up the price of the treat. If you’re looking for nutrition, you should be doing so at mealtime.
Mrs. Pastures Cookies For Horses is the one treat that was eagerly accepted by every horse in our trial, including those never offered treats before, so it should be your first choice for a picky ho rse.
If you have a cookie monster, as most of us do, look for treats that are the most convenient and least expensive. Horse Nibbles at about $3/lb. for cookies and Buckeye Peppermint Snacks at about $4/lb. for small tubes tie for Best Buy. Both these treats were also considered tasty by most of our pickier testers.
Contact your local tack shop or: Bubba’s Molasses Kisses, www.Bubbaskisses.com, 860/672-0351; Buckeye Peppermint Snacks, www.buckeyenutrition.com, 800/989-9467; Gen-A-Treat, Nickers International, Ltd., www.nickint.com, 800/642-5377; Giddyap Girls, www.giddyap.com, 888/443-3927; Grand Prix, Blue Mountain Biscuit Co., www.bluemountainbiscuit.com, 877/929-6600; Hilton Herballs, www.chamisaridge.com, 800/743-3188 or www.hiltonherbs.com, 011/44/1460 270700; Horse Nibbles, 215/538-2652; Lincoln’s Horse Bix, Miller Harness, www.millerharness.com 800/553-7655; Millie’s Mini Muffins, www.jacksnacks.com, 952/447-4999; Mrs. Pastures Cookies for Horses, www.mrspastures.com, 800/446-7757; Osteocare, www.starhorseproducts.com, 800/261-5927; Primrose Acres, 207/926-4700; Shapley’s Snacks, www.shapleys.com, 800/982-2017; Sweet Lumps, Miller Harness, 800/553-7655; Tally Oats/Big Ass Mule Bites, Hamilton Horse Cookie Co., www.horsecookie.com, 800/741-6371.