In the last 20 twenty odd years the equestrian world has embraced a feed stuff called a “Balancer”. The theory being that for optimal health horses need extra vitamins and minerals in order to perform. This concept has expanded to every conceivable variety that matches modern domestic horse maladies: joints, laminitis, metabolic, ulcers – the list is endless. As variable as the application is the price – some starting at modest levels whilst others require a second mortgage to sustain.
There are some questions are worth asking about this now very normalised aspect of horse feeding; what is in a balancer? Does every horse need a balancer? Why do some work for some and not for others?
Finding the baseline
The majority of balancers include a combination of the common vitamins and minerals that have been deemed “essential” to the health of the horse. Whilst I could go into a lot of detail about what each of these vitamins and minerals does, the more relevant point is what are you trying to balance?
Depending on where your horse lives in the world and what sort of forage your horse commonly eats, plus any extras in hard feed, can give a wildly different baseline to work from. So, two things are important to understand before you choose the right balancer for your horse; what does my horse need? And, what’s in what I already feed?
NRC or National Research Council published a book called Nutrient Requirements of Horses in 2007. This was originally published in 1989, and the 2007 version is the sixth edition. This is an academic book based on the collaboration of many scientific studies and research papers. Some people considered it the last word on equine nutrition, whilst others feel we still have more to learn and further research into the diet of the most successful wild horses globally should be included. Although, this information may not be perfect is does provide a baseline to work from rather than pure guess work or worse – just believing what the feed companies tell us is good for our horses.
Okay, without going into some mind-bending bio-chem and scary maths, it is worth checking the NRC values that are appropriate for your horse. Happily, there is a program on this website that does all the clever stuff for you - https://nrc88.nas.edu/nrh/
If we look at a very average 500kg horse the recommended mineral and vitamins look like this, for a horse “at maintenance” ie no work, and no requirements to grow (for a young horse) or no need to increase condition (for a poor horse)
Factors that affect the nutrient requirements: age, weight, environment, individual variations, health issues and exercise/training. All of these factors require slightly different values for each of these important nutrients, so there is never a “one size fits all” balancers. So, we have to find that which fits the closest. As we can see from the example above if you take an average horse from “maintenance” with no work to “Intense” training the nutrient requirement for some minerals and vitamins significantly increase – in some cases doubles.
In the good old days, it was thought that unless a horse needed more energy (calories) for work, then they never needed more than forage to survive, maybe a salt lick if they sweated a lot. There are still many people that hold to that belief, mostly based on “my horse does just fine” approach. In the modern domestic horse, these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. But why?
Forage – grass, hay, and variation there of – make up the majority of the horse’s diet. Even when grain is fed, you are really only feeding the seed heads of some very specialised grass. Equally other types of forage like alfalfa/lucerne, are specialised and intensified versions of legumes, same family as clover, beans and peas. Like all plants forage can only provide nutrients that are available to the plant via it’s environment, for example if your soil is devoid of copper, then your grass or hay will not contain any copper. And this is the problem! Over the last 50-70years since we started “industrial farming” we have ignorantly removed many of these vital nutrients from our soil. So, horses 100 years ago could, in all likelihood, survive on forage alone, now there simply is not enough key minerals left for plants to use and store for them to be abundantly available in the forage.
Unless you are a farmer of your own land and willing to take 5-10years to rejuvenate your soil, the chances are you will need to feed your horse something extra to balance what is missing.
To find out what is and is not available to your horse, the best place to start is forage analysis, there are two types – nutritional and mineral. These analyse different things and both are required for the full picture. Nutritional deals with energy, protein, and sugars. Mineral will tell you about the big minerals measured in grams – calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sodium etc, and the trace minerals – iron, copper, zinc, manganese etc. These aren’t cheap either, so if you don’t have a consistent supply, it is potentially better to make an educated guess based on your local geology.
Armed with your analysis you can then work out what is missing. It might be that you have lots of some minerals and barely any of others. Again, the link above to the NRC calculator can help you determine what is missing.
In this example you can see that the big minerals are covered if a little out of balance, but the trace minerals which are measured in mg, are very low and will require adding to the diet to balance things. One thing that is clear here, is I definitely don’t need to add iron to the diet, it is very high already. Note vitamins are not measured in these types of analysis.
Feed stuffs that throw a spanner in the works
There are some popular feed stuff that are not always that helpful when balancing your horse’s diet as they contain unusually high levels of certain things which can be “antagonistic” and potentially detrimental to achieving the correct balance. I have only included “straights” here, not combined feeds or those that have additive to balance some big minerals.
Here is a list of feed stuffs each has values based on 1kg of feed to keep the maths simple.
High Red Flags: IRON! Calcium, Potassium
Low Red Flags: Trace minerals – copper, zinc and manganese, Magnesium
In a future blog, I may go into a lot more detail on the importance of correct mineral ratios, but for now lets stick to highs, lows and balance. It is clear from an average forage analysis (hay from south Wiltshire chalk downs) and the readily available forage based straights that it is simply not possible to balance some key minerals without adding something additional to the diet. While some minerals are abundant and potentially excessive, others are barely available and would need adding.
Value for money vs False economy
There are hundreds of balancers out there and it is difficult to know where to start, and honestly, I don’t think there is single solution. In a perfect world, with a very consistent forage supply and use of the same straight feedstuffs, the best solution is to create a custom balancer that provides only the things that are missing and none of the minerals that are abundant already in the diet. If you have a mind to do it there is a DIY option for this, as it is easy to buy good quality single minerals and make your own balancers. Equally, if you prefer not to have the hassle and have a bit extra budget, you can have a custom blend made for you. The ones to remember are copper, zinc and sometimes manganese, plus of course magnesium.
Buying a “complete” balancer might seem like the way to go, but in reality you are just creating very expensive horse wee! Everything they don’t need should, in a healthy horse, get excreted. Some balancers that look good on paper and seem to have actually based their ingredients on NRC values rarely take into account a base line and just chuck everything in that is needed sometimes including iron which is often in excess, sometimes to problematic level (see future blog on mineral ratios).
Beware a bag of fluff, with a tiny amount of something useful! This is the other problem, in order to make some minerals more palatable some feed manufacturers choose to use binders and flavours to make their product taste nice. The problem with this is you end up with lots of “filler” and very little mineral value. It might look good because they have used big numbers on their packaging, but when Magnesium, for example is measure in mg/kg instead of g/kg you are getting 1000 time less magnesium.
Ingredients that can be absorbed by the horse and those which just look like they might be the right mineral. Without getting too imbedded in bio-chemistry, there are many main stream feed manufacturers that use minerals that are not readily absorbed by the horse, in these case it may look like you have the right minerals in the ingredients list, sometimes in generous proportions but when your list included the names of the compounds ie Zinc Oxide at 100mg instead of nutritional data showing the individual mineral - Zinc at 100mg, the difference in this case being about 20mg, which is potentially the difference between something being balancer for your horse or not.
The other big factor illustrated in this table is the amount of fillers and extra ingredients involved in making the product more palatable for the pellet balancers. Balancer #5 is particularly poor with very little trace minerals available the majority is iron, which is often unnecessary, and the other key minerals needed are very low. When compared to balancer #2, which in real terms costs about the same per day, you aren’t even getting half the mineral content. So the “cheaper” pelleted balancers are a completely false economy and nothing close to balancing anything based on NRC values.
The difference in quantity is also huge, you would need to feed between 600 grams and a kilo of the pelleted balancer per day to get the right amount of minerals, where as with the powdered balancers you are only feeding 50-150 grams with no extra hidden calories - with is very important for horse that are overweight and/or have metabolic issues.
Balancer #3 does better with good quantities of minerals in forms that can be absorbed easily by the horse. But for an extra £3-4/month in most cases, #2 is the best option. The gold standard is of course #1, but the extra expense might just not be worth it for some horses that don’t need some of the fancy extras (not listed), plus a headline brand name.
Balancers are not a one size fits all product, knowing your starting point – forage analysis - is crucial to understand what you need to balance. In some cases no balancers at all might actually be advantageous compared to some of the mainstream pelleted versions that seem to focus on minerals that are already readily available (like iron and calcium) in most forage and less of the more expensive trace minerals. If you are able to design your own do it! Mixing for one or two horses is fairly easy. If you are feeding 30 horses and have the budget a custom balancer is a better bet, and most likely cheaper in the long run than a “complete” off the shelf version. If you don’t have a consistent source of forage or your horse has specific ailments a high-quality powdered balancer is more likely to give your horse what they need compared to some big brand pelleted versions. You can feed less the recommended amount per day and still be getting more essential minerals into your horse than if you choose a pelleted brand.