There are many behavioral and safety reasons not to give your horse treats but for those who can’t resist, this is for you. If you must give treats, at least do no harm.
This feral horse skull shows remarkably clean teeth.
In choosing treats for your horse, please avoid the temptation to go with things that remind you of your grandmother’s kitchen or the pastry wall at Starbuck’s. Cookies, buns, biscuits and muffins are not for horses. While the horse is equipped to appreciate sweetness to help guide him to calorie rich plant material, feeding high sugar items is not good for oral health. The fact he will eat fries, creme donuts or peanut butter and jelly on white bread then wash it down with Coke or Pepsi doesn’t mean you should let him do it!
The bacterial population in the mouth depends on what is in there to feed it. Sugar or starch rich foods support bacteria which thrive on these carbohydrates and release acid which damages the teeth and inflames gums. These are common issues in domestic animals and nonexistent in feral ones.
If purchasing treats, you have to be careful to actually read the ingredients list. One treat that calls itself natural, crunchy and carrot has wheat as the first ingredient. It also contains wheat midds, molasses, corn and a long list of inorganic minerals. The name doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s in them.
Why not keep it truly natural, simple and good for the horse at the same time? There are many things the horse would appreciate eating that don’t belong in a candy dish or cookie jar. Some you will have thought of – others not so much.
To our senses they have all the appeal of driveway gravel but split dried green peas are relished by most horses. I don’t know how they can tell it’s even something edible but horses will readily snatch up the rock hard little green peas. Avoid dried beans though. They interfere with digestion unless cooked.
Another one you would probably not think of is cubed Kudzu root. This is available inexpensively from bulk herbal suppliers. The little cubes look like cork and have no human detectable aroma but the horses eat them right down. They are loaded with antioxidant bioflavanoids. Speaking of crunchy antioxidants, many horses love Rose Hips as well.
Oldies but goodies on the list of things you can safely carry in your pockets are peanuts, sunflower seeds, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, carrots and celery. Very healthful but more of a challenge to carry around are grapes, prunes, bananas and berries of all kinds.
Last but far from least is a simple handful of freshly picked grass and/or clover. There’s really nothing they like more. If you are going for the convenience of a bagged treat, look no further than alfalfa or grass hay as the base. If you want to mix up the flavor a bit, apple, cherry, banana, fenugreek and peppermint are all favorites. You can get the appeal of grains, without the high starch, from Brewers or Distillers dried grains which are grains with the starch fermented out of them. Avoid molasses, dextrose or maltodextrin (all sugars) in favor of the natural herbal sweetness of Stevia which has been proven to not cause an insulin rise in horses.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD