Getting the right level of nutrition into a barnful of horses can be a balancing act. There are the hard-training competitors and the laid-back weekend warriors. Then there’s that lanky gelding who gobbles up huge amounts of food and never puts on weight. And practically every barn, at some point, has a pony “of a certain age” who seems to just keep getting fatter no matter how dainty her servings.
The equine digestive tract is designed to thrive on a diet composed mainly of hays and/or pasture grasses. But for many horses that’s not quite enough. To maintain a healthy weight, some may need more energy---calories, to be burned as fuel or stored as fat---than they could ever get from forages alone. Others, such as growing youngsters and hard-working athletes, may need more protein to help build and maintain muscle.
In addition, hay and grasses may be deficient in some vitamins and minerals all horses need. “Here at Michigan State, we have analyzed a lot of hay over the years for various research projects, and very few samples we’ve looked at would have met the requirements for every nutrient,” says equine nutritionist Brian Nielsen, PhD, of Michigan State University. “Usually there is a deficiency in copper or some other nutrient, and you’d have no way of knowing unless you had the hay analyzed.”
These shortfalls can be addressed by adding concentrated feed and/or a supplement to a horse’s ration, and each product has benefits and potential drawbacks for individuals in different situations. One relatively recent option, introduced within the last 15 years or so, is a type of concentrate called a ration balancer ---a product formulated to provide the protein, vitamins and minerals the average mature horse needs without adding many calories.
“Ration balancers provide a lot of flexibility,” says Tania Cubitt, PhD, a Middleburg, Virginia-based equine nutritionist with Performance Horse Nutrition. “When it comes to feeding horses, there are many, many ways to get from point A to point B. This is just another tool that allows people more flexibility with a feeding program.”
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Rations that may need balancing
Here’s how healthy horses on the following types of diets may benefit from a ration balancer.
• Forage alone. Pasture grasses and/or hays provide as many calories as most horses need but they may be deficient in particular nutrients.
“Pasture intake usually runs around 2.5 percent of the horse’s body weight, which would generally meet a maintenance horse’s energy and protein needs,” says equine nutritionist Judy Downer, PhD, of the College of Central Florida. “Fat-soluble vitamin needs are almost always met with forage, and horses produce their own B vitamins and vitamin C. However, minerals can be deficient in horses consuming pasture alone.” In addition, older hays may be deficient in certain vitamins that degrade when the grasses are cut and dried for storage. For horses who are fed only hay and have little or no opportunity to graze, a ration balancer can provide the missing nutrients without adding unneeded calories.
• Forage with straight (commodity) grains. A ration composed of hay and commodity grains, such as corn or oats, can provide plenty of calories for a hardworking horse but may be short of some nutrients. “These grains have essentially no calcium, and many of the crucial trace minerals may be deficient,” says Downer.
In fact, says Cubitt, this type of diet inspired the development of ration balancers in the first place: “Some horse owners use powdered supplements to add to grain, but these tend to sift through the grain to the bottom of the feed tub and are not eaten, or the horse sorts them out; the supplement isn’t being consumed by the horse,” she explains. “Ration balancers were originally created to balance unfortified grains such as oats, corn or barley. By putting the necessary vitamins, minerals and protein in a palatable pelleted form, the horse would eat it, and this form also enabled manufacturers to add some better-quality protein.”
• Forage with limited concentrates. Commercial feeds formulated to meet the needs of different life stages provide all the balanced nutrition a horse needs---but only if he receives the full recommended amount. If a horse is given less than the suggested serving, say, because he does not need all of the calories, then he isn’t getting all of the recommended vitamins and minerals, either. “Perhaps the horse is kept at a stable or boarding barn that uses feed product X, but that particular horse doesn’t need the recommended feeding rate of that product---he doesn’t need the five pounds per day,” says Cubitt. “You could either use a ration balancer instead, or top-dress it onto a small amount of a fortified grain.”
• Rations that vary with the seasons. Ration balancers are often a good choice for horses with seasonal work schedules. For example, a camp horse who works hard all summer but goes on hiatus in the wintertime may need extra calories only during the warmer months. A ration balancer fed year-round can ensure that horses receive consistent nutrition even as the amount of calories provided changes.
“For example, during the show/competition season when a horse is working hard and needs more energy, the ration balancer could be mixed with oats or some other higher-calorie feed,” says James M. Lattimer, PhD, of Kansas State University. “Then when the horse is no longer working and has a more sedentary lifestyle, he can go back to the straight ration balancer.”
What the label says
When considering a ration balancer, start by reading labels. Various types of products are available: “Some are created to be fed with a grass hay while others are intended to be fed with a legume or alfalfa hay,” says Nielsen. “Thus, they will contain different nutrients and nutrient levels.”
As with any product, it’s important to follow recommendations for feeding ration balancers. Because they contain concentrated nutrition, a horse doesn’t need as much as he would of a standard commercial feed. “They are designed to be fed in low amounts---maybe one-half to two pounds per day, whereas a true concentrate might be fed at a rate of three to six pounds per day or higher, depending on the needs of the horse,” says Lattimer. “This is essentially why ration balancers were invented---to deliver the other nutrients without delivering excess energy, but we need to be mindful of the feeding rates.”
This difference in feeding rates also means that the nutritional percentages listed on the labels need to be interpreted carefully---at first glance some of the nutrient balances, such as proteins and starches, may appear to be too high. “If we look at the percentage value as we’ve been trained to do, the bag might list 20 percent sugars and starches---which everyone knows is too high for a horse with equine metabolic syndrome, for example,” says Cubitt. “But you are only feeding one pound a day to a 1,000-pound horse, and thus the actual amount would typically be the lowest sugar/starch feed on the market, even lower than the low-carb products.” Twenty percent of a mouse is still much less than 10 percent of an elephant, she explains.
“I think that labels using percentages were valuable 50 years ago because we were all feeding horses the same amounts---about six to eight pounds per day,” Cubitt adds. “But now we have some people feeding six to eight pounds [to a performance horse] and other people with great hay who are only feeding one pound of a ration balancer. With such a wide variance in quantity, percentages don’t mean anything anymore.”
Apply the same logic to pricing ---a 50-pound bag of a ration balancer costs significantly more than the same quantity of traditional feeds. “The bag is quite expensive, but what people need to look at is the cost per horse per day,” says Cubitt. “Perhaps the bag costs $30, but when you divide that by 50---one pound per day---to get the daily cost of feeding the horse, it’s actually very cost-effective.”
A word of caution
When considering a ration balancer, one obvious question needs to be answered: If a horse’s basic ration of forage and grain (or forage alone) meets most of his nutritional needs, will adding another source of protein, vitamins and minerals on top of that create overages of some nutrients?
Nutrient levels of commercial feeds are listed on their labels, of course, but the only way to be certain of your hay’s nutritional value is to have it tested. “It’s wise to get your hay analyzed,” says Nielsen. “Pasture is a different story; it’s more difficult to determine nutrient levels because those are constantly changing. But even with hay, if you are buying a few bales every week or every other week, each batch will be different. If you are buying a large quantity of hay from a single source, you can get it analyzed and know if it will meet the horses’ requirements. If it does, there’s no need to feed a ration balancer.”
On the other hand, if your analysis reveals nutritional shortfalls, then you do have the option of giving your horse supplements that contain only the specific vitamins or minerals he needs. “If you know the nutrient levels in your hay, this allows you to target any deficiencies,” Nielsen says. But this must be done carefully. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to prevent problems by adding too much of a certain nutrient,” he adds. “We’re usually better off not to try to fix things that don’t need fixing.”
In reality, of course, most people with average, healthy horses aren’t going to have the nutritional value of every new load of hay evaluated---and that’s OK. “For owners who are not getting their hay analyzed, and their horse is not thin, providing a ration balancer is probably a wise strategy, to make sure the horse is getting the necessary vitamins, minerals and protein, especially some of the limiting amino acids,” says Nielsen. “These horses don’t need the extra energy that comes with a typical grain mix, but they might need some help in meeting the other requirements.”
And, yes, the ration balancer may put your horse over the recommended minimums of certain vitamins and minerals he’s already getting from his forage, but with a few exceptions---such as selenium---this is unlikely to cause a problem, says Nielsen: “Here in the United States, many horses probably receive more nutrients than they need, just because people tend to overfeed them or are overly zealous in trying to provide everything that might be needed. This usually doesn’t become an issue unless we create imbalances by overfeeding some nutrients that interfere with absorption of some other nutrients. With minerals in particular we can create imbalances when we over-supplement horses. One example is selenium; you could provide too much if you do things wrong.”
Other examples include calcium and phosphorus---to maintain a proper calcium:phosophorus ratio a horse must consume more calcium than he does phosphorus. “Some minerals and trace minerals can react with one another and need to be in proper ratios with each other,” explains Lattimer, adding that copper is another nutrient of concern. “The horse would have to consume quite a lot to create an imbalance, but it could happen if a person consistently overfed. Excess protein intake usually isn’t harmful unless the horse has kidney disease.”
To avoid significant overages, stick to the recommended serving sizes when feeding a ration balancer. “The thing you don’t want to do is confuse a ration balancer with a traditional feed because the feeding rate for a balancer is so much lower,” says Nielsen. “If you feed the balancer at the rate you’d feed a grain mix, you’d be providing way more nutrients than needed, and this could create some problems.”
Still, says Lattimer, “If a horse were to accidentally get into the feed sacks and overeat, it would probably be safer for him to overeat a ration balancer than a typical concentrate that’s high in energy with starch and sugar.”
In short, Nielsen says, “If you are feeding a typical forage and feeding a balancer in the manufacturer’s recommended doses, you probably won’t create problems.”
Meeting your horse’s nutritional needs can be a balancing act. Some feeding options can provide too much in terms of calories and nutrition while others offer too little. In those cases, ration balancers may be the best way to get it just right.