Updated: Aug 16
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.