The short answer to the question of “why do horses like sugar cubes?” is because they’re sweet! Horses love sweet things the same as people do, and they happily consume the little bits of sweetness when offered. This affinity for sugar has led to the use of sugar cubes for training horses because they keep well in a pocket and deliver just enough of a reward for responding properly.
However, as wonderful as sugar is for a reward or treat, it can be troublesome for horses with insulin resistance, and can have adverse health effects if fed too frequently. All horses are at risk of developing chronic illnesses that are aggravated by sugar, and need to be on a safe diet to protect their health. Here’s a look at the question of why do horses eat sugar cubes, how to use it wisely, and healthy alternatives to balance out their use.
RELATED: What Human Food Can Horses Eat? (And NOT Eat?)
Why Do We Give Sugar Cubes to Horses?
The reasons why we give sugar cubes to horses are many. They’re practical, they reinforce proper behavior or responses, and it’s fun to watch a horse’s face light up when they bite down on the cube. Essentially, we give horses a treat to indicate satisfaction with something they did, and sugar cubes are great for that purpose.
A box of sugar cubes is inexpensive and their compact form makes it easy to stash a few into a pocket without worrying about them crumbling. It’ll take longer to go through a pound of sugar cubes than it does a pound of carrots, and you can keep a box of cubes in your tack trunk without worrying about spoiling. You also won’t find yourself short of treats when it’s time to train, perform, or simply hang out with your horse.
Reward for training or a great performance
Training a horse to perform a movement requires guiding it through the movement and introducing cues. You can praise your horse verbally and pat them on the shoulder for doing well, and that may be enough to encourage your horse to connect the dots. Adding a little treat in the form of a sugar cube helps to drive home that they did well and repeating the movement results in further rewards. Always make sure to alternate between praise with and without treats to reduce expectations on the part of your horse.
Feeding your horse a treat is something that makes both of you happy. It’s a psychological response that comes from the desire to make someone you love feel good. It’s a bonding activity that makes the two of you feel good about each other. There’s nothing wrong with this urge as long as you make sure not to overdo it. A horse that comes to expect treats can also become mouthy and nippy—behaviors that are difficult to train out.
Alternatives to Sugar Cubes
There’s nothing wrong with keeping sugar cubes on hand to give your horse as a treat, but alternatives can be more satisfying for your horse and deliver the same gratification for both of you. Alternatives also tend to have lower sugar content, are safe to feed to horses with insulin resistance, and contain ingredients that taste good and are good for your horse.
Carrots are always a good bet with horses because they’re sweet without being full of sugar. Fruits that are low in acid and sugar make for a great treat, as do commercially prepared treats that are formulated with low sugar. Strawberries, cherries without the pits, shelled peanuts, hay cubes, and even celery work well as treats and rewards. They also don’t encourage a horse to get pushy for a sugar rush.
When it comes to commercially prepared treats, the best ones are those that use sugar beet pulp as its base. You can also cut a hole through a sugar beet and hang it in your horse’s stall as a tasty boredom breaker. A horse will find it challenging to grab the beet with its teeth and take bites while getting the desired taste of sweetness.
How Many Sugar Cubes Is Too Much?
Too much sugar can cause a horse to gain weight, but just as with everything else, balance is key to preventing weight gain and treating your horse. It’s worth noting that horses are more active due to their need to graze and the fact that we put them to work for various purposes. That means feeding a few sugar cubes usually isn’t going to affect them adversely, and they can be used as a special treat.
On average, you shouldn’t feed your horse any more than 10-12 sugar cubes on a daily basis. Even though this is a relatively small amount in relation to the size of your horse, feeding more than this can lead to tooth decay and weight gain. Too much sugar can also aggravate an underlying metabolic disorder or ulcer that you may not be aware of.
Horses that have a chronic issue with insulin resistance, metabolic disorders, or are prone to laminitis, should not be fed sugar cubes at all. This is due to the fact that a sugar cube can result in a glucose spike and may trigger an episode of their condition.
When a Horse Should NOT Be Fed Sugar Cubes
It’s strongly suggested by veterinary science to not feed sugar cubes to horses that have developed certain chronic conditions including insulin resistances, polysaccharide storage myopathies (PSSM), ulcers, and laminitis. A diet low in carbohydrates is part of the management of these conditions, and adding sugar can upset a horse’s glucose levels. A spike in the glucose level can trigger an episode of laminitis, irritate the stomach lining, or set off an episode of tying up.
Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy
PSSM is a condition that’s caused by abnormal storage of glucose in the muscles. When a horse with PSSM has a lot of sugar stored in its muscles and is exercised, the horse can experience muscle stiffness and pain, muscle tremors, sweating and lameness. It’s a chronic disease that results in a horse tying up and may lead to death. It’s caused by a genetic mutation and is prevalent in Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, draft horses, and breeds that have a preponderance of slow twitch muscles.
Tying up was once known as “Monday morning disease” because a horse given the weekend off while fed normally would exhibit signs of discomfort. It’s since been found that a horse that ties up is a horse that has a genetic disposition for PSSM. Horses that don’t have the genetic mutation will most likely never experience an episode of tying up, even though they’ve been given time off while maintained on regular feed.
Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS)
Sugar has the effect of increasing the amount of volatile fatty acids in a horse’s stomach and aggravating an existing ulcer. It can also lead to an increase in squamous ulcers in the stomach. Horses get ulcers from stress and eating hard feeds that are high in sugar or coated in molasses. Giving sugar cubes to a horse with EGUS increases the risk of chronic ulceration of the stomach.
Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)
EMS is not to be confused with Cushings, even though the two conditions have similar presentations and symptoms. Instead, EMS is closer to diabetes in that it’s the result of overproduction of insulin by the body. Horses with EMS experience insulin spikes that take a long time to go back to normal. Breeds affected by EMS include Arabians, ponies, mustangs, and donkeys.
These breeds are specifically affected due to the fact that they’re thrifty and hardy, and require regular exercise to burn off calories. Individual horses from these breeds are at risk of developing EMS when they don’t get regular exercise and are fed high-calorie foods.
Cushings is similar to EMS, but it’s the result of a pituitary tumor as opposed to a metabolic disorder. A horse with Cushing’s needs to consume a low-carb diet and be closely monitored for signs of laminitis. Any breed of horse can develop Cushing’s, and should not be offered sugar of any kind after diagnosis.
All of these conditions are manageable, but outside of EGUS, they can also result in an episode of laminitis if a horse’s insulin level spikes for too long. Management of all of these conditions is to eliminate as much sugar from their diet as possible. Poor quality forage, grazing muzzles, and beet pulp-based foods and treats are safe feeds and treats to give to a horse that has sugar sensitivities.
Summary of Why Horses Eat Sugar Cubes
Remember that there’s nothing wrong with feeding your horse sugar cubes. The reasons why horses eat sugar cubes are simple and straightforward, and it’s a great tool for training a horse or enjoying their pleasure at the treat. There is too much of a good thing with sugar, and horses experience weight gain and tooth decay the same as people do from its consumption. It’s also not a good idea to feed sugar to a horse with a metabolic disorder. Be judicious in its use, and put the box of cubes in the back of the tack trunk behind the safe treats.
And if you’re ever in doubt, always consult with your veterinarian, who can give you specific recommendations based on your horse’s needs!