By: Shannon Pratt-Phillips, Ph.D.
Ration balancers are becoming a popular feed selection for many types of horses.
Ration balancers are formulated to be concentrated sources of protein, vitamins and minerals designed to “balance out” a diet that might be lacking in these. They may be offered to horses that are fed whole grains as the main energy (calorie) source of the diet, or for those horses with lower calorie needs to balance and round out nutrients found in their hay.
Ration balancers vary widely, but, in principle, they are highly concentrated feed mixes, where protein content might be upwards of 30%, and vitamins and minerals are highly fortified, such that only a small amount (typically less than 500g, but maybe up to 1kg) is fed daily. Essentially, these are a multi-vitamin and mineral supplements, mixed with additional protein. Many products contain added essential amino acids (such as lysine and threonine), and some include omega-3 fatty acids or probiotics. The ingredients are specific nutrient additives, along with some mixing and binding agents and flavouring.
Balancers may be offered to athletic horses that have diets consisting of mostly hay (or other forage) and whole grains (such as oats). While the hay and oats may provide sufficient calories (energy) for the horse, such a diet would likely be lacking in protein (depending on the hay quality), minerals such as calcium, sodium and selenium and vitamins such as A, D and E. By offering even a small amount of a balancer, the diet would be “topped up” to meet the horse’s nutrient needs. For example, a horse in intense work might consume enough hay and oats to meet energy needs, but 1kg per day of a balancer, with 30% protein and 3% calcium, which would provide an additional 300g of protein, and 30g of calcium. This is different from a traditional mixed concentrate feed that would be fed in higher amounts, and is less concentrated in protein, vitamins and minerals, because those feeds are fed for their energy (calorie) content, fortified with the other nutrients.
Balancers are also an excellent option for maintenance and lighter working horses, with lower calorie needs. These horses could easily meet calorie needs through hay and/or pasture alone, but might be lacking in some other nutrients. Ration balancers can top up these nutrients, without adding significant calories to the horse’s diet, in part because such a small amount is fed.
In the table below, you can see the differences in nutrient concentrations between a ration balancer and a typical concentrate. Because the ration balancer is more concentrated (higher percentage of nutrients) you don’t need to feed as much of it to get the protein, lysine, calcium, etc. from it (for an example a 50kg horse in heavy work might only eat ~500g per day of the ration balancer). However, the example horse also wouldn’t be getting many calories from the ration balancer, and would, therefore, need another source of calories, such as whole grains such as oats.
Horses that are on weight loss programs may also be offered ration balancers, along with limited amounts of hay. However, you’ll notice in the example above, even just 500g of a ration balancer provides almost 2 mcal. If a horse is on a diet, they might only need about 14 mcal/day, and the ration balancer would make up almost 15% of that, further decreasing the amount of hay that can be offered to the horse. For horses to lose weight, it may be better to offer them only a vitamin-mineral supplement (fed in the amount of about 50-80g per day), so they can get almost 100% of their calories from hay to maximize their hay intake, rather than having to limit that further to account for the calories in the ration balancer. If hay quality is low, these horses might also need a direct protein supplement, such as soybean meal, casein or individual amino acid supplements.
It should be mentioned that there is no need for horses to be fed both a traditional commercial concentrate mix AND a ration balancer. The commercial mixes are already fortified with vitamins and minerals, and when the feeds are offered in the recommended amounts along with good quality hay (and water and a salt block), all nutrient requirements should be met. The addition of a ration balancer, or a general vitamin-mineral supplement, just adds in more vitamins and minerals and could result in toxic amounts being fed.
It is always good to add up all of the nutrients provided from your hay and your selected feeds, to make sure they meet your horse’s nutrient requirements. If you need help, an equine nutritionist is a good resource.