Ration balancers and your horse

A breakdown of what ration balancers are, how they work, and why they’re a smart way to supplement your horse’s diet.

Ration balancers (also known as forage/hay balancers) provide your horse with a concentrated source of minerals, vitamins and protein. Due to their low feed rate, they do not contain a lot of calories, making them a popular choice among horse caretakers with easy keepers. A typical ration balancer will provide the same amount of nutrients in one to two pounds per day that a grain will provide in five to six pounds a day. Let’s take a closer look at ration balancers for your horse.

High nutritional density

The high protein content of ration balancers is the characteristic that stands out the most.  The low feed rate merits this high level. For example: feeding 2lbs of a ration balancer that is 30% protein provides your horse with 260g of protein. You would get the same amount of protein by feeding 5lbs of a grain that is 12% protein.

This also holds true for the mineral content. Where a typical grain may have 55ppm of copper, a ration balancer would have upwards of 290ppm of copper, over five times the amount.

Are they necessary?

Balancers come in a pelleted form, making them more convenient to feed over a powdered mineral supplement. But despite the convenience and nutritional density, the question remains…are these power-packed pellets truly necessary? A common statement is “My horse is an easy keeper, he does not need any grain.” This is partially true – easy keepers do not need the extra calories from grain. However, they do need the minerals and vitamins. While hay is the mainstay of any horse’s diet, it can be lacking in certain nutrients.

Hay is typically deficient in sodium, copper, zinc, iodine and selenium (in some areas). Long-term nutrient deficiencies can result in subclinical symptoms such as poor hoof quality, dull fading coat, compromised immune system and exercise intolerance, just to name a few. In addition, excess iron in hay can interfere with the absorption of other trace minerals that are already deficient (zinc and copper). Your average grass hay has twice as much iron than is recommended by the National Research Council (NRC) daily requirements.

The chart below shows you what average grass hay provides and what is typically lacking. As you can see, the ration balancer fills in most gaps. Adding one to two tablespoons of iodized salt will meet the iodine and sodium requirement.

Buying a ration balancer

Now that you know the benefits of using ration balancers, how do you find them among all the other 50lb bags of horse feed? Unfortunately, not all ration balancers will come conveniently labeled as “ration balancer”. Look at the guaranteed analysis and feed instructions on the back of the bag. The protein level should be high – around 30% – and the feed rate will be 1lb to 2lb per day for the average 1,000lb horse.

The price of a ration balancer is usually higher than your average bag of grain. This is because the bag will last you longer. It is always best to compare pricing by the cost per serving. This is also true with supplements.

Here is an example of the cost breakdown between a typical ration balancer and grain:

Feeding guidelines

Once you have your ration balancer, you want to ensure you are feeding your horse the proper amount. Feeds should be measured by weight, not volume. Kitchen scales work great for weighing out horse feed. You may have a scoop lying around that will hold the appropriate amount; otherwise you can use any scoop and use a permanent marker to draw in the fill line. Weigh it out according to how many times a day you are feeding, and make sure you follow the instructions. For example, if you are feeding twice a day and the instructions say to feed two pounds per day, mark your scoop for one pound. Then you’ll use that amount for each of the two feedings, providing two pounds per day. If you are feeding once a day, weigh out the total amount as per the instructions.

Introduce the ration balancer to your horse gradually over the course of one week. Start with a handful and build up to the recommended amount. This allows his microflora to adapt to the change. Rapid feed changes can disrupt the microflora, resulting in colic and other GI disturbances.

Ration balancers are a great way to provide your horse with the nutrients that forage is commonly lacking. They provide these nutrients without the extra calories, and will make your overall feed bill less expensive.