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How do horses and humans differ in their preference for treats?

Horse Treat

The use of treats for companion animals is common. The use of treats by equine caregivers is increasing, although has been little studied to date, especially in comparison to treat use and choice for other companion species such as dogs and cats. A recent study aimed to consider horse preference between two different treats and how horse caregivers rated the treats1.

Horse treat preference was examined via a paired-preference test. Two different treats formulated for horses were used in the study, treat A, and treat B. Treat A was a cinnamon-flavored, flax-based disc of approximately 5 cm in diameter and of a consistent, smooth appearance. Treat B was an apple-flavored, oat-based treat of approximately 3 cm in diameter and of a more textured appearance. Ten mixed-sex horses were involved in the study over four consecutive days. Horses were exposed to five of each treat in separate feed bowls, initially by smell alone (a 15-second olfaction period) followed by a period of treat consumption. An observer noted first treat sniffed, first treat consumed and any incidences of, treat rejection or other aversive behaviors.

Human treat preference was assessed by presenting 23 volunteers with five of each treat in a clear glass bowl. Participants were encouraged to interact with the treats and score them on appearance, size, texture, and smell on a 9-point scale (1 = dislike extremely; 9 = like extremely). Purchase intent for each of the two treats was assessed on a 5-point scale (1 = definitely would not purchase; 5 = definitely would purchase).

Horses demonstrated no preference between treats A and B for the first treat sniffed, first consumed or first treat finished. Aversive behaviors were rarely observed and treat consumption was the most frequent behavior after the 15-second olfaction period. There was also a positive correlation between the first treat sniffed and first treat consumed (P = 0.01, ᶲ= 0.40) and the first treat consumed, and first treat finished (P <0.01, ᶲ= 0.48). There was no correlation between first sniffed treat and first finished product (P = 0.02). These results suggest that smell might drive treat choice in horses, with aroma being linked to palatability.

Human preference for treat appearance, size, texture, and purchase intent were lower for treat A than treat B (P < 0.01) but there was no difference in the rating for smell between treats (P = 0.78). Notably, treat aroma scores did not differ for human participants, with visual appearance being more important in rating treats.

Study results indicate that there is a difference between horse preference for treats and human preference. Horses appear to use smell in selecting treats to consume whereas human selection appeared to be more based on visual perception such as size or appearance of the treats than aroma.


1. Francis JM, Thompson-Witrick KA, Perry EB. (2021). Palatability of horse treats: Comparing the preferences of horses and humans, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, In Press. Available HERE

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