Very well-established in countries like the United Kingdom, where forage-based diets have been the traditional norm, feed balancers are becoming very popular in Australia as more and more horse owners get in step with the fibre-feeding mantra and move towards healthier, low-starch forage-rich diets for their horses and ponies. We know that forage-based diets are the most natural and the ideal scenario for most horses and ponies but they may not provide all the essential nutrients required.
Researchers continue to emphasise the need for providing additional supplementation, such as a feed balancer, to maintain good health and well-being.
In this interview, our editor, Cristina Wilkins interviews Anita Budgeon, co-owner and founder of Fibregenix, a specialist Australian feed balancer company to find out what to expect from a good feed balancer.
What is a feed balancer?
A feed balancer is an easy-to-use, all–in-one, low-intake, non-heating concentrated source of easily absorbed protein, vitamins and minerals and other essential nutrients, designed for all classes of horses when additional calories are not required.
Often mistaken for hard feed or just a vitamin and mineral supplement, a good feed balancer is a highly specialised feed product. It differs greatly in the amount of protein and macro minerals that it adds to your horse’s diet and should provide additional benefits such as digestive and gut health optimisers (eg probiotics/prebiotics) as well as hoof and coat supplements.
A feed balancer is also very palatable and incorporates raw materials that may be found in a horse feed such as fibre and oils. The most useful feed balancers should also help owners reduce starch intake and will be free from whole cereal and molasses.
In essence, feed balancers are a way to simplify your horse’s diet without compromising his or her performance, condition, looks and, more importantly, long-term well-being.
When are feed balancers most indicated?
Feed balancers give you the option of feeding a forage-only diet or a lower energy mix or cube, then topping up the nutrient (but not the starch-derived energy) levels to ‘bridge the nutritional gaps’.
They are typically used and work very well in the following situations:
- Fed alongside a forage-only diet as a low-calorie source of protein, vitamins and minerals.
- Combined with ‘straights’ (e.g., grains and/or legumes such as barley, oats or lupins) and other fibre sources such as beet pulp, to balance out nutrient deficiencies.
- To top up nutrients when you are already feeding a hard feed but not at the recommended rate – whether it is because you want to keep weight down or to avoid compromising the horse’s digestive system which can lead to hot, fizzy behaviour.
Hard feeds are formulated for different energy and nutrient requirements such as performance, leisure, veteran etc and most are high in starch and sugars containing not just one but often three or even four different grains. The vitamin and mineral content, however, will be at lower rates per kilo of product than a balancer, hence recommended daily serves of hard feed will usually be in multiple kilos.
Commonly, horse owners feed their horses well under the recommended daily serve indicated on the feed bags. This means the horse’s essential nutrient intake is reduced and in many cases needs addressing with some additional form of supplementation.
In this situation, feed balancers are a good way to provide the essential nutrients needed for health and performance without additional energy and calories.
How do feed balancers differ from vitamin and mineral supplements in powder or granule form?
There are many ways in which feed balancers differ from powder or granule-form vitamin and mineral supplements, even those designed to ‘balance’ a horse’s diet.
For example, supplements in powder or granule form are not always palatable and can be easily sifted out by the horse. A good feed balancer contains raw materials that are highly palatable to horses and readily consumed - straight out of your hand.
When you examine the labels, vitamin and mineral supplements often provide nutrients at excessive levels which are then either excreted as the horse is only able to absorb a certain amount or, in a worst case scenario, where excessive levels of some nutrients have the potential for toxicity if they cannot be excreted.
Unlike a feed balancer pellet, a standard vitamin and mineral supplement does not provide additional fibre or fatty acids. Specific gut health supplements (eg probiotics and prebiotics) are also often missing in these formulations.
There are those that claim to contain ‘yeasts’ but it is often a case of’ buyer beware’ – do your research and ask the company questions - unless they can specify the type and form, you won’t know if they will have any effect or if it’s actually approved for equine use.
How do feed balancers compare with other supplements?
As with many things, form always defines the function. For a supplement to be highly effective, the form of the ingredients is key and price then becomes a factor. A good balancer, however, will ultimately prove far more cost effective than supplying individual supplements.
The word ‘quality’ is often a much over-used cliché but, within the feed industry, it is a fact that some, though certainly not all, feed companies may employ ‘least cost mixing’ - this is where the energy, protein, vitamin and mineral levels of the feed are set, but the manufacturer is at liberty to choose from any number of ingredients at hand to make up the feed at least cost to them.
Because of the way they are made, least cost feeds can have widely varying protein quality and starch contents from batch to batch, something which is not ideal for horses.
While there is certainly nothing unethical about feeds being made via least cost, experience has shown that, while two feeds may look comparable ‘on paper’, feeds that are made using set recipes perform a lot better in the field.
Much of this can be put down to protein quality. The quality of protein used in a feed is a major determinant of how well a horse does on that feed.
How should horse owners choose a suitable feed balancer?
- Check that the feed balancer employs a set recipe where the energy, protein, vitamin and mineral levels and the raw materials used are specified and remain consistent, unless it is a tailored range catering for different types of horses and their specific metabolic and nutrient requirements.
- Ideally, choose a balancer that is free from whole cereal grains and molasses.
- Check the quality of the protein source and avoid least cost formulated products. Despite some negative press, soybean meal generally has an amino acid profile and digestibility that is superior to most other seed meals. Whereas cottonseed meal (a ‘least cost ingredient’ and poorly digested), safflower meal and canola meal are all comparatively low in the essential amino acid lysine.
- Look at the levels of the vitamins and minerals provided – these should be more per kilo than what you would find in a commercial hard feed.
- Check the form of the nutrients – are the minerals in the more bioavailable forms such as chelates or glycinates? These forms are more expensive than non-chelate forms but they are absorbed and utilised better by the horse, so they are more cost-effective.
- Check the balancer provides functional ingredients. These are often the cost drivers of any feed or supplement product but their value cannot be underestimated. A functional ingredient is an ingredient that has a higher contribution to nutrient supply to the animal over and above what would be expected from its chemical analysis. Example of these would be live yeast probiotics, nucleotides, and prebiotics such as mannanoligosaccharides (MOS) and fructooligosaccharides (FOS).
- Don’t be afraid to ask! Talk directly to the makers of the products and assess their integrity – do they actually understand what their ingredients do, how they perform and why they would be considered better than others? Can they explain the relevance of their product and how is the product going to help you solve your horse’s nutritional dilemmas?
TOP TIPS FOR SUPPLEMENTING
- Let your horse be your guide – does he have access to biodiverse, healthy pasture, a shiny coat, great hooves, digestion, temperament and keeps good weight? If so, the chances are he or she is doing absolutely fine!
- If you are going to supplement, make sure the forms of ingredients contained in the product are going to do the job they say they will. Do your research!
- Ask questions! And when you ask for advice on supplementing your horse’s diet… Check the advice is coming from a reliable source. Instead of asking for opinions about ‘x’ supplement on social media, internet forums and groups, get in touch with an equine nutritionist. Just because you heard someone say they had ‘a good result’ doesn’t’ mean it will suit your horse.
- Check the labels of all your feed and supplements and don’t double up unnecessarily on supplements – you could potentially be creating a toxicity situation.
- If you use a computer-based feed programme to check what your horse is getting from a nutrient perspective, remember you have to account for the hay and pasture that your horse is consuming – the best software diet analysis is worth nothing without having a laboratory analysis of pasture and hay.
- If you’re really concerned about a specific condition or deficiency, never try and second guess what your horse might be lacking - always get a blood test as well as specialist veterinary and nutrition advice.
TOP TIPS FOR FEEDING HORSES
- Keep your horse’s diet simple, primarily forage-based just as nature intended.
- Be realistic about the amount of exercise your horse does, feed for the work done and not what you think your horse is going to do.
- Always weigh feed in the first instance. Weigh your horse’s hay every single time you feed and know the weight of the chaff you are feeding.
- When making dietary changes, change only one thing at a time and do it gradually over, at least, a couple of weeks.
- Weigh your horse using a weight tape or on a weighbridge, and body condition score your horse at least every month or so keeping a record.
- Don’t feed ponies any type of hard feed – ever!
- If you suspect your horse has ulcers, get the vet in, have your horse scoped, follow the advice and stay away from grain-based hard feeds.
- Prepare your horse for spelling periods, especially if he has been used to hard feed over a period of time by increasing fibre and decreasing hard feed before turning away. During the summer months, when paddocks dry out, this is an ideal time to feed a balancer along with some supplemental fibre to provide essential nutrients that are lost in pasture due to summer heat.
- When bringing a horse back in from a long spell, work him/her up gradually over a long period - you can’t take him the following weekend out to compete.
- With off the track racehorses, don’t just suddenly turn them out into a paddock and expect them to get on with it! Follow the golden rule of making changes one at a time and gradually, over at least two weeks.