Just like people, horses like to be treated. To horses and horse owners, treats usually mean some tasty food item that doesn’t necessarily confer significant nutritional benefit. Here, we touch on foods that are safe to give, how to safely give treats, and options for other positive reinforcements if your horse has dietary restrictions.
Why Do We Give Treats?
Treats are a great way to reward behaviors that are desirable, which is called positive reinforcement. People and animals both respond much better and learn faster when rewarded, rather than punished. A horse has a very short-term memory. Giving a treat right after the desirable behavior will provide the strongest association between the two to result in what is called a “learned behavior.”
Learning, by definition, happens in any creature in increments. Therefore, a treat should be given as encouragement if a horse tries and gets part of the desired task correctly. For example, if the goal is to have a young horse stand at the mounting block quietly while the rider mounts, a treat should be given when the horse first learns to approach the block. Then treat again when it can stand to the side, then again when the rider can place their foot in the stirrup without the horse moving. Repeat this until the complete behavior is learned. Sometimes, lavish praise should be used when training instead of always relying on treats as a reward. This will prevent a horse from expecting a treat after every training session and possible bad behavior when a treat is not forthcoming.
Finally, giving a horse a treat is fun for the caretaker as well. The giving and receiving of treats is a bonding experience that will enhance the emotional connection and feeling of well-being in both parties.
What Treats Are Tasty for Horses?
What is your favorite food? When you brought it to mind, you probably didn’t just think about the taste; you probably also focused on things like smell and texture. Horses are the same as humans, dogs, and cats: The smell of something helps determine if it is worth tasting.
Horses love the taste of something sweet. Commercially made treats for horses usually have a lot of sweetening agents to take advantage of a horse’s sweet tooth. There are also many good recipes available to make homemade horse treats with ingredients such as molasses, honey, and oats. If you don’t feel like baking, sugar cubes and peppermints are favorite treats and can be given in moderation, one or two per day.
Fruits like apples and bananas and vegetables that are high in sugar like carrots are often given as positive reinforcement. Pumpkin, celery, and melons may also be preferred by some horses and are safe to give.
Raisins and grapes are safe for horses but are toxic for dogs, so it’s best to keep them out of stables if there are also canine friends. Similarly, a small piece of chocolate may not hurt a horse, but is certainly toxic for dogs, and feeding chocolate could result in a caffeine or theobromine positive if the horse is being tested for drugs at a race or show.
Which Treats to Share
Pieces of carrot
Commercial treats or baked goods specifically designed for horses
Which Foods to Avoid
Kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
Any fruit or vegetable that's rotten or wilted
Your horse may have different preferences; there’s nothing wrong with a horse that doesn’t like apples. Horses are herbivores, meaning they don’t eat meat, so usually any food item is made from grains, vegetables, or fruit. Try a few different types of treats to see which one your horse likes best.
What Are Safe Treats?
Most horses chew their food, but a very excited horse may swallow a treat whole when offered. Therefore, it is important to cut or break pieces of carrot or apple into bite-size pieces to prevent esophageal obstruction, or choke.
Horses are big animals, so the calories of a sugar cube or cookie won’t make as much of an impact as on dogs and cats. However, horses are also quite good at breaking down even complex sugars; they’ve evolved to get nutrition from grass and hay! Therefore, keep treats small and monitor your horse for an appropriate weight and body condition.
Healthy treats with lower sugar content are available, and this is very important for horses prone to obesity, metabolic diseases, and laminitis. Small horses, ponies, and donkeys should be fed treats sparingly.
There are a few things to avoid feeding as treats. Grass clippings and dried leaves may be poisonous in even small amounts, as can many ornamental plants such as oleander and rhododendron. Some vegetables such as kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts may cause more gas buildup in the digestive tract and should be avoided to prevent certain types of spasmodic or gas colic.
Any treat should be carefully inspected for rot or mold, as this can also be toxic. Finally, it is important to never feed a horse grain intended for livestock. Cattle and chicken feed contain additives that are not toxic for them but can be fatal for horses.
How to Give Treats Safely
Unfortunately, horses that are given treats too frequently often can develop a habit of begging. This can get quite annoying; horses may pull at pockets and zippers and generally invade personal space. It can even be dangerous, as a horse nipping at hands can result in bite injuries.
One of the major ways to avoid this is to never feed treats out of your hand and instead feed from a pail or bucket. However, this can be impractical if you’re trying to positively reinforce behaviors outside of the stable, such as quietly leading in hand. Another way to prevent the impolite behavior of nuzzling for treats is to never reward this behavior. Horses should only get a treat as a reward offered and should never “ask” for one.
When giving a treat, hold the treat in the flat of your hand, and don't pull your hand away to prevent the horse from lunging for the treat. Even a polite horse may mistake a segment of carrot for fingers, and horse incisors have powerful crushing ability. 1
Other Types of Positive Reinforcements
If your horse has dietary requirements that prohibit feeding of treats or has become too pushy to receive food as a treat, other options for bonding and positive reinforcement exist. Clicker training is an exciting way to communicate and train animals of many species, and it certainly works on horses!
Horses are also remarkably sensitive to the emotions of their caretakers. Just like people, horses respond favorably to praise. Finally, a good way to bond with your horse and maintain their health is by careful grooming, which is also a non-food treat!
Francis, Jesse M., Katherine A. Thompson-Witrick, and Erin B. Perry. "Palatability of Horse Treats: Comparing the Preferences of Horses and Humans." Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 99 (2021): 103357.
Feeding Treats to Horses. Equinews; 2014. Accessed June 16, 2022. https://ker.com/equinews/feeding-treats-horses/.