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Feed Balancers: Does Your Horse Need Them?

December 2017 by Larissa Bilston, BAgrSc (Hons), Animal Nutritionist

Many horse owners understand the importance of supplementation. We know hay and pasture alone does not provide horses with a balanced ratio of vitamins and minerals. We also know these are included in commercial feeds, but is buying a bag of feed from the produce store enough?

We ask Larissa Bilston to answer the frequently asked questions on the role of feed balancers, which are commonly sold as pellets. She explains when balancer pellets are needed to supplement the diet, and why they are a more efficient and cheaper option, despite their price.

The vast majority of equines do not need a traditional bagged horse feed to meet their full dietary requirements. Many owners do not realise there are alternative products available that better suit their horse’s dietary needs.

Q: What is a balancer pellet?

A: A very concentrated feed designed to add only the elements of the diet not supplied by the horse’s forage. It is usually in a pellet form, but may be a powder. Balancer pellets add vitamins and minerals with minimal additional calories. Some, but not all, are also designed to add protein to suit particular classes of horses, such as broodmares or growing horses.

Q: What is a mineral balancer?

A: A supplement (often a pellet, but may be a powder) designed to add the minerals necessary to top up and balance a horse’s forage source, with minimal added protein and calories. A good one will also balance the critical mineral ratios across the whole diet.

Q: Why do horses need mineral balancers?

A: Even the best quality grass grown on the best soils in the world does not contain the levels of minerals needed to meet horses’ optimal mineral requirements in correctly balanced ratios. This can leave a pasture-fed horse mineral deficient, even though the grass provides enough calories to maintain weight and enough natural oils to keep the coat shiny.

Q: How do you identify a balancer pellet?

A: When compared to a typical bag of horse feed, a bag of balancer pellets will be much more expensive. But, in reality, the balancer pellets often make it cheaper to feed your horse a better balanced diet, because the bag lasts a lot longer - since only a small amount needs to be fed each day. It is worth calculating the cost per day of your bagged food, when comparing it to the cost of a balancer pellet. 

Some balancer pellets need to be fed at around 1kg per day for a full sized horse, some as little as 200g per day; whereas a traditional bag of horse feed needs to be fed at 3-4kg per day to provide the same level of supplementation. You can expect the mineral levels in a concentrated feed to be at least twice as high as the levels in a standard feed and the levels in a balancer pellet to be more than four times higher.

Q: Does my horse need a balancer pellet?

A: Your horse needs a balancer pellet if:

  • They stay a good weight on grass and hay alone,
  • They get too fat or too silly if fed the recommended amount of your chosen horse feed pellets, or
  • You do not supplement vitamins and minerals to top up and balance mineral ratios across the entire diet. If not using balancer pellets, this can be achieved by feeding the full recommended amount of a ‘normal’ good quality horse feed or with a powdered supplement.

Q: What is the difference between a ‘normal’ horse feed and a balancer?

A: A ‘normal’ horse feed is designed to provide calories, protein, vitamins and minerals targeted towards horses with differing requirements (e.g. performance horse, breeding or growing horses, or racing horses) and owners with different budgets (from budget feeds to premium feeds with high quality ingredients). 

A good quality horse feed will include a good quality vitamin and mineral premix, but will only provide adequate levels of minerals if fed at the recommended rate. A balancer pellet or powder can also be used to top up these levels if your horse needs some, but not all, of the calories in a pre-mixed hard feed.

A good quality balancer will contain similar levels of vitamins and minerals (and maybe amino acids) per serve as a quality horse feed, but without the calories. That is why balancer pellets are ideal for:

  • Easy-keepers,
  • Over-weight and laminitis prone horses,
  • Most miniatures and ponies,
  • Hardy, native breeds,
  • Pleasure and pony club horses, and
  • Horses grazing lush, leafy Spring or Autumn pastures.

Your horse is more likely to need a ‘normal’ horse feed if they are:

  • In moderate or harder work,
  • In late pregnancy,
  • A lactating broodmare,
  • Rapidly growing, or
  • Unable to maintain a healthy weight on grass/hay alone.

You are not a ‘bad owner’ if you don’t give your horse a large hard feed every day - if your horse doesn’t need those extra calories. 

Your horse will be happier being fed more grass or hay, and a small meal of balancer pellets, than if you give a large hard feed and then restrict grazing or provide small amounts of hay to prevent unwanted weight gain. 

Horses are healthier when they are able to ‘trickle feed’ by consuming low calorie grass or hay for the majority of the day. Because the equine stomach releases acid continually, horses can begin to develop ulcers from acid burn in as little as four hours on an empty stomach. This is different to the human stomach which is only triggered to release acid when we chew and food enters our stomach. 

Your horses will be happier and healthier if they are allowed to consume all the calories they need from roughage and only eat a concentrated source of calories if they are unable to maintain weight without a hard feed. 

Many owners use the small serve of balancer pellets as a daily treat, since a good balancer pellet giving all the minerals their horse needs to balance the diet can fit into a couple of handfuls of tasty pellets.

It goes without saying that having your horse’s diet analysed and balanced by a nutritionist is the best way to ensure you are feeding a healthy diet.