Treats for horses – more than just a reward

Treats are a tasty reward for the horse after a newly learned lesson, showing a desired behaviour or work done. The treats can promote concentration, motivation and willingness to work in the horse. The opinions of behavioural researchers and other horse experts regarding the usefulness of reward feed differ widely in some cases. Nevertheless, some studies show that giving reward feed during training has a positive effect on the learning behaviour of horses.

Horse gets treats

It doesn’t matter whether treats are given as reward feed during training or as a favourite snack in between: A look at the ingredients is necessary. Which treats are the right ones for the horse? Which ones can even harm the horse?

Are treats useful for the horse?

The horse is a herbivore that does not have to earn its food in the wild. Therefore, there are many expert opinions that reward feed are not a sufficient incentive for the horse. Their opinion even goes so far as to claim that reward feed can cause behavioural disorders in the horse.

Other studies show that treats – used correctly – can reinforce desired behaviour and that food serves as a motivator in horse training. British researchers have investigated different types of praise when learning a new lesson. They differentiated between reward feed, petting and no praise at all. The results are clear: the horses in the test group that received reward feed achieved 100% of the learning goal, while the horses in the other two test groups achieved only 40%. Treats can make training with the horse more efficient. Horse trainers who work with reward feed and positive reinforcement often use treats in combination with a clicker.

Treat bag

Treats can also be useful in independent activity: For example, stuffed into feed balls, the horse can occupy itself for a longer period of time. This can be useful for horses in winter or on box rest.

Which treat is the right one for my horse?

Not all treats are the same. There is a wide range of these handy little snacks on the market. Some can be healthy, while other treats function like unhealthy sweets for the horse.

  1. No essential nutrients: A good treat should not cover any essential nutrients or vitamins for the horse. It should remain neutral for the most part. If the horse already receives a complete vits and mins supplement with its basic feed, treats can quickly lead to an over-supply of minerals.
    The situation is different with vitamin and mineral suppelements in the form of treats. These are particularly suitable for giving vits and mins to field kept horses or those in loose housing. However, as reward feed, treats should not contain any nutrients.
  2. Free from artificial colourings and flavourings: To avoid putting too much strain on the kidneys and liver, the treats must not contain any unnecessary additives. This applies to healthy horses, but especially to horses sensitive to metabolism, such as horses with EMS, laminitis or Cushing’s disease. Especially in clicker or reward training, a lot of feed might be used, which is why treats with artificial colours and flavours would only unnecessarily strain the metabolism.
  3. Free from grain, molasses and sugar: Grains, molasses and added sugar can unnecessarily overstrain the horse’s detoxification organs. For the treat to be molasses-free, it must also be grain-free.
  4. Free from sweeteners: Some manufacturers use stevia as a sugar substitute, but this has serious consequences for the horse’s appetite. The sweetener tricks the horse’s body into thinking that it is getting sugar, but the corresponding metabolic reaction does not occur. As a result, the horse gets ravenous and asks for more. A good horse treat does not contain sweeteners or sugar substitutes.
  5. Practical size: Treats are usually handy, but at the same time should not be too small. At the moment of giving the treat, the horse may be excited and snap hastily at the treat. If the treat is too small, it slips down the throat without being chewed and can cause a blockage of the pharynx. Therefore, do not only pay attention to the size of the treat, but only release the treat when the horse is attentive and consciously takes the treat from your hand.
  6. Firm consistency: Horse treats should have a firm consistency, not only because they are easy to handle and keep your pockets clean, but also because they are easy to chew. Fresh treats, such as apple pieces or carrots, are very readily devoured by the horse. However, the firmer the treat is, the more the horse has to insalivate and chew it. The prolonged chewing has a great advantage: it has a calming effect and helps the horse to process information.
    Studies have shown that horses chew and lick especially after stressful situations in order to relax. The stress does not necessarily have to be negative, but can also be positive (e.g. during training). If the horse chews, this has a relaxing effect on the jaw and neck. Horses also chew when they have something to work on. If the horse receives a treat after a lesson, you give the horse the opportunity to think and process what it has learned. The chewing can take up to 10 seconds – a time that must be given to the horse in order to sufficiently process the training

How are treats given correctly?

The scepticism that some behavioural scientists express with regard to reward feed can be justified if a few basic rules are not observed when giving it. Furthermore, basic knowledge of the horse’s learning psychology is necessary to be able to give treats without attracting a rude, begging horse.

Treat bag

The treat acts as a reinforcer, which means that it intensifies and encourages the behaviour that is being shown at the moment the treat is given. Treats should therefore only be given in a precise and targeted manner and never in an excessive manner! If the horse is rewarded with feed at the very moment he is pawing the ground or tugging at your jacket pocket, this is exactly the kind of rude behaviour that is encouraged.

As with all training, one point is crucial when giving treats: consistency. Giving the horse a treat because it looks so cute can be detrimental to a harmonious relationship. Treats should only be given as reward feed and should only be held out to the horse when a behaviour is to be reinforced.

How many treats can a horse eat per day?

Many horses already struggle with obesity and diabetes, bad teeth and metabolic diseases. The amount of treats per day should therefore be looked at more closely.

How many treats may be fed to the horse depends on the total feed plan. If the horse is not overfed with its basic feed, 2 to 4 treats a day are perfectly fine. Probably 200 grams will not cause any problems with a 500 kilogram horse. However, anything over 200 grams per day is definitely too much – if colourings and flavourings are added, then this harmless treat can become a problem.

Horse gets treats

Therefore, pay attention to the manufacturer’s instructions so as not to exceed the daily dose of the respective reward feed and adjust the snack quantity to the total ration.

How long do homemade horse treats last?

Homemade horse treats are not only a nice gesture from human to horse. They also leave no questions open about the ingredients of the treats. However, homemade treats do not last as long as bought ones. Therefore, only a small amount should be baked. To ensure that they are still edible for a long time after they have dried out, they should be stored in a cool, dry place. Treats with fruit have a certain residual moisture. They should be fed within a few days.

Herbs, vegetables, oats and millet are suitable for homemade horse treats. These are easy to process and equally easy to digest. Refrain from sugar and syrups, which can damage the teeth. In addition, wheat, spelt and similar grains should not find their way into the recipe, as they are more difficult for the horse to digest.

A simple, healthy treat recipe for your horse:

Horse gets treats