Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
It can be difficult to get the right nutrition for a barnful horses. There are hard-training competitors as well as weekend warriors. There’s also the lanky gelding that eats a lot of food but never gains weight. Nearly every barn has a pony of a certain age who just seems to get fatter with each passing day, no matter how small her meals are.
Equestrians are designed to thrive on a diet that consists mainly of pasture grasses and hays. For many horses, however, this is not enough. Some horses may require more energy (calories) to maintain a healthy weight than they can get from foraging. For some, like athletes and young children, more protein is necessary to build and sustain muscle.
Hay and grasses might be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals that horses require. Brian Nielsen, PhD, an equine nutritionist at Michigan State University, says that he has analyzed a lot hay over the years to support various research projects. Very few of the samples that we looked at met all the requirements. “Usually, there is a deficiency of copper or another nutrient. You wouldn’t know unless the hay was analyzed.”
You can address these deficiencies by giving your horse concentrated feed or a supplement to his ration. Each product has its advantages and drawbacks, so each situation is different. A rationbalaler is a new type of concentrate that has been introduced in the past 15 years. It provides the necessary protein, vitamins, and minerals for mature horses without adding calories.
Tania Cubitt (Purity Horse Nutrition, Middleburg, Virginia) says that ration balancers offer a lot flexibility. There are many, many options for feeding horses. This tool allows for more flexibility in a feeding program.
Rations that might need to be balanced
A ration balancer can help horses be healthy on these types of diets.
* Forage alone. Although hays and pasture grasses can provide horses with the same amount of calories, they might be lacking in certain nutrients.
Judy Downer, PhD, equine nutritionist at the College of Central Florida, says that pasture intake is usually around 2.5 percent of a horse’s bodyweight. This would typically meet a maintenance horses energy and protein requirements. “Fat-soluble vitamins are almost always met by forage and horses produce their own vitamin B vitamins and vitamin D. Older hays can also be deficient for certain vitamins, which degrade when grasses are cut and dried for storage. Horses who are only fed hay and don’t have the opportunity to graze can use a ration-balancing system to provide them with the necessary nutrients.
* Feed straight (commodity), grains. Although hay and other commodity grains like corn or oats can provide ample calories for hardworking horses, they may lack some nutrients. Downer says that these grains lack calcium and may have deficiencies in some essential trace minerals.
Cubitt says that this diet is what inspired the creation of ration balancers. “Some horse owners add powdered supplements to their grain. But these aren’t eaten by horses. They sift through the grain until they reach the bottom of the feed tube and don’t eat them. The supplement isn’t being consumed by the horse,” she explained. “Ration balancers were initially created to balance unfortified grain such as barley, corn, and oats. Horses would eat them if they were given the vitamins, minerals, and protein in a digestible pelleted form. This also allowed manufacturers to add more quality protein.
* Forage with only a small amount of concentrates. Horses need balanced nutrition. Commercial feeds are formulated to meet different life stages. However, horses should only be fed the recommended amount. A horse who is not given the recommended amount of calories may not get all the vitamins and minerals he needs. Cubitt says that although the horse may be kept in a barn or stable that uses feed product X for his daily needs, he is not required to eat the recommended feeding rate. He doesn’t even need five pounds of feed per day. You could use a ration balazer instead or top-dress it with a small amount a fortified cereal.
* Seasonal rations. Horses with seasonal work schedules will find ration balancers a great choice. A camp horse that works hard in summer, but takes a break in winter may require extra calories during warmer months. Horses can be fed consistent nutrition year round by ration balancers.
James M. Lattimer of Kansas State University, PhD says that ration balancers could be mixed with oats, or other high-calorie feeds, when horses are working hard and need more energy. The horse can then return to straight ration balancer if he is not working or has a more leisurely lifestyle.
What does the label say
Start by reading the labels when looking for a ration-balancing device. There are many types of products available. Nielsen says that some are meant to be fed with grass hay, while others can be fed with legumes or alfalfa. They will have different nutrients and nutrient amounts.
It is important to follow the recommendations for feeding ration balancedrs as with all products. Concentrated nutrition means horses don’t require as much of it as they would with a commercial feed. Lattimer says that concentrates are meant to be fed in very low quantities, perhaps one-half to two lbs per day. A true concentrate may need to be fed at three to six pound per day, or more depending on the horse’s needs. “This is why ration balancers were created–to provide the other nutrients while delivering enough energy. However, we must be careful about the feeding rates.
The difference in feeding rates means that nutritional percentages on labels must be carefully interpreted. At first glance, some of the nutrient blends, such as starches and proteins, might seem too high. Cubitt says, “If we take a look at the percentage value like we’ve been taught to do, we might see 20 percent sugars or starches on the bag–which is way too high for horses with equine metabolism syndrome.” Cubitt explains that a mouse weighing 20 percent is less than a mouse weighing one pound per day for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds.
Cubitt says that 50 years ago, labels using percentages were very valuable because horses were fed the same amount–roughly six to eight pounds each day. “But we now have people who feed six to eight pounds [to a horse that is a performance horse] while others with great hay are only giving one pound to a ration balancer. Because of the wide variation in quantity, percentages no longer mean anything.
The same logic applies to pricing. A 50-pound bag of a feed balancer costs substantially more than the equivalent amount of traditional feeds. Cubitt says that although the bag is expensive, people should consider how much each horse costs per day. The bag may cost $30 but if you multiply that by 50–one pound each day–it’s very affordable to feed the horse.
A word to caution
One obvious question to ask when evaluating a ration balancer is: If a horse has a basic ration of grain and forage (or just forage), will adding another source for protein, vitamins, and minerals to that create an overage of some nutrients?
Commercial feeds have their nutritional levels listed on the labels. However, it is best to have your hay tested to ensure that you are 100% certain about its nutritional value. Nielsen says it is wise to have your hay tested. Nielsen says that analyzing hay is an entirely different matter. It’s much more difficult to find the right nutrient levels when the environment changes constantly. Even hay is different, even if you buy a few bales each week or every other, each batch of hay will be unique. You can have hay analyzed by a professional to determine if it meets the horses’ needs. If it meets the horses’ requirements, you don’t need to feed a balancer.
If your analysis shows nutritional deficiencies, you can give your horse supplements with the exact vitamins and minerals that he requires. Nielsen states that knowing the nutritional levels of your horse’s hay will allow you to target any deficiencies. This must be done with care. He says that one of the most common mistakes people make is trying too hard to prevent problems. “It’s usually better to not fix things that don’t need fixing.”
Reality is that most horses with healthy, average health won’t have their hay evaluated. This is okay. Nielsen says that a ration balancer can be a smart strategy to ensure the horse gets the right vitamins, minerals, protein, and limiting amino acids. These horses do not require the extra energy of a standard grain mix. However, they may need help to meet other requirements.
Yes, your horse may be given more vitamins and minerals than he needs from his forage. But, with some exceptions (such as selenium), this is unlikely to cause any problems. Nielsen says that in the United States many horses receive more nutrients than they need because people overfeed them or are too zealous to give everything. This is usually not an issue unless you create imbalances by feeding certain nutrients to interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Over-supplementing horses with minerals can cause imbalances. Selenium is one example. If you don’t do the right thing, you might give too much.
Calcium and phosphorus are two other examples. To maintain a good calcium:phosophorus balance, horses must consume more calcium than they take in phosphorus. Lattimer says that minerals and trace minerals can react and should be in the right ratios. He also mentions that copper is another important nutrient. The horse would need to eat a lot in order to cause an imbalance. However, it can happen if the horse is fed too much. A horse with kidney disease or excess protein is unlikely to be harmed by excessive protein intake.
Avoid large overages by sticking to the recommended serving sizes for ration balancers. Nielsen says that a ration balancedr should not be confused with a traditional feed. The feeding rate for a balancer will be much lower. Nielsen says that if you feed the balancer at the same rate as a grain mixture, it could cause problems.
Lattimer says that if a horse accidentally eats out of feed bags, it is safer to give him a ration balanced diet than to eat a concentrate high in sugar and energy.
Nielsen summarizes that “if you feed a balanced diet and a forage in the recommended amounts, there shouldn’t be any problems.”
It can be difficult to meet your horse’s nutritional requirements. Certain feeding options may provide too many calories or too little nutrition. Ratio balancers might be the best option in these cases.