Updated: Nov 4
I’ve spent so little of my career thinking about horse treats, but now that I’ve turned my focus to them this week, I realize that there is a lot to muddle through. All of a sudden I want know the answers to many questions like “what defines a treat?”, “how much do humans spend on them each year?”, “how do they compare in ingredients, cost, marketing claims, shapes and textures, availability?” “Do the enrichment claims hold any weight?” I spent an absurd number of hours this week doing just that, so I hope this article gives you some helpful insight.
What are treats? It seemed like a silly question at first, yet I quickly realized that I needed to answer that before I could compile of list of them to compare. It turns out that the complete list is limitless. Treats can be whole fruits and vegetables, sugar cubes, human candies, a bagged product from the feed store, or even a handful of grain or hay. So, here is how I’m going to define them. A treat is something hand-held and edible that we give to our horses as a reward, medication medium, nutraceutical, or signal of our love. We reward horses when they come to us from the back pasture or stall and during positive reinforcement training. We use them to hide medication, but also because it makes us feel good to feed something special and anything can be “special” if it is rare. For this article, however, my interest lies in the rat’s race of enriched horse treats with “added benefits”, because I'm wholeheartedly entertained by marketing claims that manufacturers use to distinguish their products. According to a 2016 statistic from the American Pet Product Association, horse owners spend roughly $261 per year on this category of products (Francis et al., 2021). They typically come in packaging between 2-20 pounds and are pelleted, extruded, or otherwise mixed and formed. I am going to focus on treat options appropriate for metabolic and ulcers horses since these categories make us such a large percentage of my consultations.
Treat Categories That We Are Going To Cover
Non-GMO and Limited Ingredient Treats
Pill Hiding Treats
Low Carb Treats
Omega-3 Enriched Treats
Joint Support Treats
Digestive Support Treats
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The reason that I have “just not cared” about treats for so long, is because they comprise so little of the horse’s diet and thereby have relatively insignificant influence on their health. Let’s say, on average, a horse owner feeds 5 treats over the course of their time with the horse each day. Five treats from my feed room is only 2 oz or one eighth of a pound. If you divide that by a 1,000 lb horse, that’s 0.0125% of its body weight. In comparison, we feed roughly 2% of our horse’s body weight in hay (160 times the weight of treats), so why oh WHY would we spend any energy at all deciding what treats to feed when we aren’t spending 160 times the energy making more informed forage choices? Ok, I know why, but that’s for another article. I’ll step off of my soap box. Let’s start some comparisons.
COMPARISONS- Price ($$$)
My personal criteria for treat purchases has historically been on price, so let’s start there. During my week of exploration, I scoured the shelves of three local feed stores and clicked my way through too many online shopping carts. *Shipping costs complicated things too much, so they have not been incorporated into the calculations. The first thing that stuck out to me on my spreadsheet was how competitive my local feed stores were on price. I had assumed that online stores would be cheaper, but I was proven wrong again and again. So, first lesson is to buy from your local feed store.
The second lesson learned was how wide the range of cost for bagged treats- from $0.55 to over $19 per pound! The median cost was $4.78 per pound, which considering how basic most of the ingredients were seemed like a lot, but companies put pretty high margins on horse treats. The products I frequently buy were all less than $2 per pound including products like my regional brand’s packer pellet (CHS Equis Complete Cube 50 lb bag) at $0.55 per pound and MannaPro’s Apple Flavor Wafer Horse Treats at $1.30 per pound. Products on the low side of the cost spectrum were prone to having alfalfa meal and wheat middlings as their first or second ingredients which made sense, but for some reason, oats were a common first or second ingredient in products on the high side of the cost spectrum. The highest priced products included Montana Made Beavis & Buster Horse Treats at $9.33 per pound (I had to include them, because the name is just too good!), Renew Gold Bisquits at $12.48 per pound, and Majesty's FLEX Wafers at $18.83 per pound. You could spend over $400 per year feeding one FLEX wafer each day as instructed (more on this product later). I was shocked that the Equus Magnificus German Muffins that we're all obsessed with were not the most expensive. These ooey-gooey, sumptuous treats marketed as pill-hiders, were only $4.83 per pound at my local feed store.
As a final comparison, you can buy a pound of organic carrots from your local grocery store for about $0.90 per pound. Do with this information as you will, but as you will see, the value of "nutraceutical enrichment" in your horse treats is poor!
COMPARISONS- Ingredients & Flavorings
Ingredients and flavorings are really, really important considerations to a horse treat creator, because of several consumer (that's you horse owner) driven factors. For example, we don't like it when treats crumble into powder. We don't like treats that look bland (Francis et al., 2021), and we certainly don't like it when we purchase a thing and the horse doesn't eat it! There is a delicate and narrow balance to be struck between a) ingredients that flow through your manufacturing equipment and form into solid pellets, b) look appetizing, c) fit into marketing claims like "low carb", and d) aren't overly expensive. Because of these limiting factors and high consumer expectations, manufacturers rely heavily on "Natural and Artificial Flavors" the most common of which was apple.
Other flavorings, besides the heavily used apple, were molasses, carrot, peppermint, banana, anise, fenugreek, brown sugar, anethole, and cinnamon. Considering the results of a 2005 landmark study by Goodwin, Davidson and Harris, I was surprised that more companies didn't add fenugreek or banana to their flavor profiles. More than one study that has shown fenugreek (imagine a licorice smell) to be an equine favorite including a 2019 study by Parrot et. al. There are likely cost and availability limitations to each of these flavorings that influence the manufacturers.
Non-GMO and Limited Ingredient Treats
If you're looking for Non-GMO treats or simply "limited ingredient" treats for allergic horses, than you sadly have few bagged options. The treats that I ran across with a "non-GMO" marketing claim were the Renew Gold Bisquits ($11-$12.48/lb) and the Uckele Equi-Treats ($6.74/lb; multiple flavors), but you'll pay a pretty penny per pound for them. The Uckele Equi-Treats had other advantages though including limited ingredients and a non-structural carbohydrate guarantee of <10%. They use timothy hay and sunflower seed meal as the base and then add a couple flavor profiles. Another limited ingredient, low-carb product was the Standlee Apple Berry Cookie Cubes ($2.30-$2.53/lb) with just alfalfa, timothy, cranberries, apple juice, sunflower oil and bentonite listed on their ingredients list. The takeaway- you might be better off sticking to whole foods like organic carrots, apples, watermelon rinds or squash if you need non-GMO or limited ingredient products (Getty, 2013).
Pill Hiding Treats
This category demonstrates the relationship between palatability and ingredients. I compared three products with marketing claims distinguishing themselves as medication mediums; Majesty’s PillEase ($8.98/lb), Equus Magnificus German Horse Muffin ($4.83/lb) and Dimple’s Horse Treats with Pill Pockets ($8.32/lb). The first ingredient for all three products is molasses which shows the tremendous advantages of this ingredient for palatability and pliability. Molasses makes the treat soft for folding over a pill. All three products also use highly palatable corn and oats, but unfortunately as you all know, this triad of ingredients will be very high in sugar and starch. So, great for hiding an Equioxx, but not a Pracend pill.
Low Carbohydrate Treats
Many of my clients have metabolic horses, so I often get asked about low-carb treat options. For starters, I’ve decided to define low-carb treats as products with a sugar (%) plus starch (%) less than 16%. I realize that this is a high bar and some of you may be shocked by this, but be aware that there is no standardization for what is“low carb’ in the equine marketplace and companies have many manufacturing challenges to create these products. If you want to learn more about WHY I use this number, please go to my Low Carb Horse Hay Project page. With that said, I was pleasantly surprised to see many products with a sugar+starch guarantee below 10%, and I would recommend these to the most high-risk, carbohydrate sensitive horses.
The brands that guaranteed a maximum sugar (%) and starch (%) included Standlee Apple Berry Cookie Cubes (8.6%, $2.30/lb), Purina Carb Conscious Horse Treats (8.9%, $2.40/lb), Mannapro Nutrigood Low Sugar Snax (9%, $4.74/lb), Uckele Equi-Treats (<10%, $6.74), Omega Fields Nibblers Low Sugar &Starch (14.1%, $8.56/lb), and Beet-E-Bites Horse Treats (7.5%, $16.42/lb). With such a massive difference in price per pound, I'm not going to assume which treats you and your horse will prefer. A couple sugar + starch percentage points should NOT sway you either way considering the tiny fraction of the horse's diet these treats will be. My recommendation= buy one of these on price, availability and flavor.
The major problem that manufacturers face when creating low-carb treats is making them taste good. They can’t be successful selling a product that 50% or more of horses will not eat. Candy tastes good and high fiber snacks don’t taste as good, and horses don’t care if it’s healthy for them or not. When you look at the foundational ingredients list of most low-carb treats, you’ll find alfalfa meal, timothy grass, beet pulp, soybean hulls, and some sort of meal (i.e. sunflower, linseed, or coconut). Considering the ingredients list of these treats, my question is, why not just buy a bag of large pellet alfalfa pellet/cubes and save yourself a few bucks? Or better yet, just buy a bag of carrots and feed in moderation. Most nutritionists agree that 1/4 lb (4 oz) or less of a whole food, especially with peels and rinds included, is NOT going to trigger a laminitis episode. Carrots contain sugar, yes, but it also has a lot of fiber and water!
For more about the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables safe for metabolic horses, check out Dr. Juliet Getty's article HERE.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Treats
I think that omega-3 fatty acid rich treats are a great idea in theory, but a poor idea in practice. They propagate the belief that a couple ounces of flaxseed will offer a significant amount of omega-3 to "rebalance" your horse's diet. Omega Fields Omega Nibblers Low Sugar and Starch costs $8.56 per pound. If you followed their directions to feed 15 per day, that would cost you about $60 per month and $720 per year. The Majesty's Omega Wafer is quite a bit worse per pound at $13.69. Their guaranteed analysis says each treat is 7.9% linolenic acid from flax (I'm assuming that the 1,800 mg is per treat, but they don't specify that.). However, I don't even have to punch the numbers to know that isn't going to touch your horse's omega-3 to omega-6 balance in the total diet, because the first ingredient is oats and the third ingredient is cane molasses! The one omega-3 treat product that I can sort of get behind is the HorseGuard FLIX. It's just flax- 100%. They recommend feeding up to 8oz per day which at $3.02 per pound which is reasonable!
Joint Support Treats
I'm going to go straight to the point here and give one thumbs up (not two) to the Majesty's FLEX ($1.10/day) and FLEXXT Wafers and a thumbs down to the MannaPro Nutrigood Senior Snax. The Majesty's FLEX Wafer offers 2500 mg glucosamine, 2500 MSM and 1250 yucca extract, 600 mg chondroitin sulfate which is significant when you consider that most joint supplements are offering 5,000 to 10,000 mg of glucosamine. On the other hand, the Nutrigood Senior Snax will only offer 100 mg in half a pound of treats and cost you $2.37 to feed that full half pound. They also market a "natural source of glucosamine", and I have no idea what that means.
Digestive Support Treats
I honestly thought that there would be more options in this category considering how ubiquitous yeast cultures, bacteria, fungi, and enzymes are in horse feeds, but I only came across a few in my brief Google search that described themselves as "digestion support"; the Purina Outlast Treats ($3.43/lb) and the Probios Digestion Support with Probiotics Soft Chew ($11.36/lb). I first tried comparing the Probios to itself by looking at the ingredients list and guaranteed analysis of the Probios Soft Chews versus the Probios Dispersable Powder. It turns out that they are NOT using the same live organisms so the guaranteed colony forming units aren't comparable. Since digestive aids are so inexpensive to add to your horse's feed (if it's not in their already!), I don't see an added value to these soft chews at such a price. I also compared Purina Outlast to itself by looking at the cost and convenience of the treat versus the pelleted Purina Outlast Gastric Support Supplement. You have to feed 10-12 treats (my kitchen scale weighed 11 treats at 150 g) from a 3.5 lb bag to get the full serving of seaweed-derived calcium compared to 200 grams of the pelleted supplement from a 40 lb bag. At that rate, a bag of Outlast Treats would only last you about 11 days while a 40# bag of supplement would last you 80 days. I just buy the pellets and feed them as a treat before riding or trailering!
For the vast majority of healthy horses out there, the brand, texture, flavor and ingredients list probably doesn't matter as long as they eat it, so just buy on cost per pound. However, if you have a special needs horse, you will need to shop critically for your treats, because some products make sense and others don't. Even though the amount of treats fed is a tiny fraction of the horse's diet, I am glad that I went through this process in order to better help my clients. I spent a gazillion hours over two weeks reviewing as many treats as I could, but there are many, many more out there. If you come across something new, I would suggest references this article to compare cost per pound, ingredients one through three, marketing claims, and feeding directions. Happy Halloween!
Francis, J.M., C.R. Neander, M.J. Roeder, and E.B. Perry. 2020.
The Influence of Topically Applied Oil–Based Palatants on Eating Behavior in Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Volume 91,102995, ISSN 0737-0806, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2020.102995.
Francis, J.M., K.A. Thompson-Witrick, E.B. Perry. 2021. Palatability of Horse Treats: Comparing the Preferences of Horses and Humans. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Volume 99, 103357.
Getty, J.M. 2013. Whole Foods & Alternative Feeds. Copyright Juliet M. Getty, PhD. ISBN-10 1483969991.
Goodwin, D., H.P.B. Davidson, P. Harris. 2005. Selection and acceptance of flavours in concentrate diets for stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 95, Issues 3–4; 223-232. ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2005.04.007.
Parrott, R, V. Farci, P. Hastie, and J. Murray. 2019. Acceptance and preference of flavors in a high-fiber feedstuff for horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Volume 76; 65-66. ISSN 0737-0806. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2019.03.070.