It is good to eat well and this is as true for horses as it is for humans; their bodies require a variety of different nutrients in order to function healthily and so their diets must reflect this. This means that a horses must spend most of its life eating vast quantities of grass and hay.
If we humans were committed to subsisting ourselves entirely on a few different types of food we’d quickly go mad. For this reason, we occasionally reward ourselves by eating and drinking things that we know aren’t good for us but that we enjoy all the same. For example, after a stressful week, you may have some alcohol to celebrate the end of it. If we’re feeling glum, we might be tempted to forgo celery in favour of donuts.
On occasion, many equestrians are tempted to offer rewards to their horses. This can be useful as an incentive for good behaviour, but for the most part it just feels good to make a horse happy. There are dangers however, humans and horses are very different animals after all and what might constitute a reward for us might constitute a punishment for them. How then can we offer a horse a treat they’ll appreciate?
In this article, we’ll take a look at how best to give your horse a tasty treat without jeopardising their health.
How does a horse eat, exactly?
It’s worth briefly discussing how a horse’s digestive system works. Horses are grazers; this means that they are able to eat constantly. Moreover, the food they ingest – like grass and hay – is very rich in fibre – the elements of food which cannot be digested, but aid in bulking the remainder of the food and slowing the rate at which it is digested.
This allows them to roam around for hours on end, eating huge amounts of food, over a very long period of time. The fibre content of a horse’s diet further slows the release of nutrients into a horse’s body into a steady stream. If a food does not contain enough fibre, then this slowing process will not occur and the result will be a spike in blood sugar levels. For reasons we’ll touch on later, this is not a desirable occurrence.
To suddenly break from this routine is to provide the horse with a shock. This is why new food sources must be slowly introduced into a horse’s diet, in order that their digestive systems be allowed time to adapt.
What should I give my horse?
The main principle one should adhere to when offering a horse a treat is that of moderation. Since a horse is a lot bigger than a human being, many think nothing of giving them human-sized snacks. This is problematic. A horse’s treats should be strictly moderated, giving them enough to enjoy the taste but not enough for the snack to become a meal. A carrot is okay; fifteen carrots is not.
The best sorts of vegetables to feed your horse are root vegetables. Carrots, parsnips, turnips and beetroots all make excellent horse snacks. They contain a wide variety of vitamins and are sweet enough to be considered a treat. Moreover, since carrots are comprised chiefly of water, they will be easy on your horse’s stomach.
Certain sorts of fruit also make for good treats too – apples and pears are both suitable, since, though they contain seeds, these seeds are not large enough pose a danger of choking. Bananas, too, are often offered to horses – though this is less common.
The horse’s taste should also be taken into consideration. Just as humans have widely varying taste, so too do horses; so pay attention to how your horse responds to different sorts of treats and strive to give them the one they like the most.
What sorts of food should I avoid?
As a rule, any foodstuff which is designed and marketed especially to humans should be avoided. This allows us to immediately rule out chocolates and other sweets, as well as shop-bought sandwiches. Meat, too, is highly inadvisable. Horses are herbivores; they will not eat meat and should not be encouraged to do so.
Bakery products are also to be avoided. Bread and dough can swell up inside a horse’s stomach, causing them to become bloated. Furthermore, bread will release a lot of unwelcome sugar into the horses’ bloodstream. For similar reasons, sugar cubes should be avoided – despite their long-standing popularity in stables the world over.
Just as an excess of sugar can cause health problems for humans, they can do so for horses, too. For example, Laminitis, a condition which causes seasonal lameness in horses, has been linked to insulin-resistance – a condition brought about by a long-term excess of sugar in the diet.
There are also some foods which might appear a healthy option, but which should also be avoided. Certain vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower, are rich in raffinose, which is an indigestible sugar. The bacteria in the horse’s hindgut will break it down and excrete gas as they do so. The result will be discomfort and gas problems. Potatoes and tomatoes, similarly, should generally be avoided, as should any fruit which contains a large stone or pip. A horse might easily choke on a plum or an avocado for example. Such foods should therefore be pitted before being offered to a horse – or, better yet, avoided altogether.
We are all familiar with the idea that everything should be done in moderation. When it comes to treating your horse, this advice rings especially true – it is difficult to go wrong if you restrict the treats to tiny portions. Your horse will appreciate the diversity that an occasional carrot might bring to their diet. So why not go and give them one now?