Feed balancers are a relatively new concept in equine nutrition, and not something I’m overly familiar with because my horses have always needed hard feeds so I’ve been able to feed the recommended quantities of concentrates of chaff which provides the right balance of vitamins and minerals. According to the nutritionalists I’ve spoken to and blurb on the bag anyway.
Balancers have been brought to my attention recently because of an increase of time spent on the sofa and in my own company, but also because Phoenix appears to be a good doer and whilst she is thriving on quality ad lib hay in the field, and a token feed of fast fibre when I bring her in, when I start working her more I want to ensure that she gets the right nutrients to best support her body as she builds muscle and works harder.
Feed balancers are concentrated, usually pelleted, sources of protein, vitamins and minerals which provide the correct ratios for horses to balance out their forage or straights (feedstuffs like oats and barley) when extra calories aren’t needed because such a small portion is fed.
It all seems very straightforward, but of course it isn’t – life never is! Feed balancers can be feed on their own; so for example to the overweight pony on poor pasture who most definitely does not need calories but the quality of the grazing means that they risk becoming deficient in one mineral or vitamin, which could lead to further problems.
Balancers can be fed on top of hard feeds of sugar beet, oats or other straights which in their basic form do not provide sufficient vitamins or minerals. For example, horses require a Calcium:Phosphorus ratio of 2:1 yet oats contain far more phosphorus than calcium so providing a feed balancer would ensure the horse wasn’t deficient in calcium.
Some people feed concentrate feeds, which are scientifically balanced to contain the correct ratio of vitamins and minerals and then feed a balancer on top of this to increase the nutrient density. However, nutritionists recommend that you reduce the amount of balancer that you feed from the recommended rate.
Really, balancers are like the vitamin and mineral supplements you can buy; for example, NAF’s General Purpose Supplement. However, supplements focus on providing sufficient micro minerals, whilst feed balancers provide protein and macro minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus as well as the micro minerals. This is why you shouldn’t feed a supplement and a balancer because you risk overloading the horse’s system with a micro-mineral and causing a health problem. For example, horses can suffer from an excess of vitamin D, causing depression, weight loss, stiffness and an accumulation of calcium deposits in the organs.
To complicate your decision over which feed balancer to use, is the fact that the level of protein varies between brands and their different balancers. To decide how much protein your horse needs, you need to consider the forage in their diet and the horse’s individual requirements. Younger horses, who are growing, or broodmares, or veterans, need higher levels of protein than mature horses in light work. Likewise a horse in hard work, or those building muscles, also need higher levels of protein. This would be when feeding a balancer on top of a concentrate feed would be beneficial to “top up” the horse’s protein intake. Poor quality forage will have lower levels of protein, and hay usually contains lower levels of protein than haylage. The best way to check your forage protein levels is by conducting soil and forage analysis tests on it.
Why are balancers becoming more popular? Well, basically because our understanding of nutrition has improved and many of the equine population are overweight, or at least on the heavier side of the scale. Horses have evolved to work quite hard off limited calories, and the improvement in grazing and forage means that owners are turning towards low calorie yet nutritionally balanced feeds. Concentrated feeds are designed to be fed in certain quantities, dependent on the horse’s size and workload. However, horses are often not fed at the correct rate because of the risk of obesity and excess of calories, which means that these horses don’t receive sufficient levels of protein, vitamins or minerals. As our scientific research increases and understanding of the horse’s biology improves, we’ve become more aware of the effects of deficiencies in vitamins and minerals on the body. For this reason, some owners feed concentrates in a reduced quantity, but then feed a balancer to ensure the horse’s dietary needs are being met.
Feed balancers have the advantage in the fact that an owner can meet the individual nutritional requirements of the horse. Symptoms of a well balanced diet are:
- Well developed top line
- Good body and coat condition
- Strong, healthy hooves
- Improved post exercise recovery
- Improved stamina
- Improved fertility
- Healthier gut
- Easier foaling
- Improved milk production
- Better utilisation of food
- A happy horse.
My next job is to read up on different brands of balancers to find one which will suit Phoenix, and when I’ve narrowed down my list, it would be worth my while ringing the feed companies to speak to their nutritionists so they I can make an educated decision as to which one to begin feeding Phoenix when she starts ridden work.