Why, When, And How To Feed Supplements And Balancers

Including tips on how to avoid unbalanced and over supplementation

Why

The need to supplement the diets of most horses and ponies living in the UK with minerals and micronutrients for at least part of the year is now established beyond doubt. Whether that supplementation is in the form of a single substance like salt or limestone, a specialized supplement, a broad-spectrum supplement, a balancer or a compound feed depends on a wide variety of circumstances. Supplementation is needed to balance horses diets and by so doing to keep them healthy and able to undertake the work requested of them. This article describes those situations where that need is best met by supplements or balancers.

Horses in perfect condition, either at rest or in light to medium work, should not need their diets supplementing if they are turned out in ideal grazing conditions. In the UK these conditions will exist for less than half the year. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer horses have the benefit of ideal pastures nowadays, the combination of modern agricultural methods and overgrazed pastures alone often severely reducing the amount and variety of micronutrients that were available to horses as little as twenty five years ago. In addition, there has been a huge increase in the use of the horse for leisure and the expectations of modern owners, in terms of travel and competition for example, and therefore the requirements of their horses, are much greater.

Equally horses in perfect condition, either at rest or in light to medium work, that are fed forage and the full recommended amount of a good quality compound feed should not need their diets supplementing except in some of the circumstances referred to below. In my experience, however, very few owners feed the full recommended amount of compound feed for a wide variety of reasons. These include wishing to take advantage of feedstuffs that are not only good for horses but also excellent value for money, like shredded beet pulp; owning a good-doer; or, particularly in the case of those of us who are female, the enjoyment of ‘creating a good meal’ for the horses in our care.

I think that the most important reasons for the swing away from using high levels of compound feed are:

Haylage is rapidly replacing hay as the most common forage fed to horses and its generally superior nutritional quality means that less compound feed needs to be fed to meet the energy requirements of the horse.

The availability of good quality chopped forages, for example, alfalfa, has revolutionized the way many horses are fed and again reduced the requirement for traditional compound feeds.

An increase in understanding amongst horse owners that large feeds of cereal-based compounds do not suit the horse’s digestive system, which is designed for trickle feeding of forage.

When

Circumstances, when it would be advisable to supplement horses diets with micronutrients, include:

When only stored forage (hay or haylage) is fed, in order to balance it. Many horses are kept very successfully on just haylage plus either a balancer or a broad-spectrum supplement mixed with a little chopped forage. It is a very natural way of feeding which suits horses very well and reduces the risks of many problems, for example, colic, azoturia, and laminitis.

When grazing conditions are less than ideal, in order to optimize micronutrient supply.

When high demands are placed on a horse, for example when racing, eventing, or competing in endurance events. A horse tuned for peak performance may well have a limited appetite and be stressed and therefore he may not eat, or properly utilize, sufficient nutrients unless his diet is expertly supplemented. Many problems can arise from insufficient micronutrient supply. Even minor deficiencies in micronutrient supply can result in reduced performance, and in a close finish, the difference between success and failure.

When the optimum condition is required for showing, in order to add the finishing touch by improving e.g. topline and coat quality

When there are specific problems, for example, poor hoof quality or impaired muscle function.

When there are specific needs, for example, to improve muscle development, bone development, or fertility. Broodmares and youngstock on good pasture would be a classic example. Or when horses are kept in areas where there is a known soil deficiency, for example, many pastures in Somerset, Gloucestershire, and the Welsh borders are deficient in copper and selenium. Another example of a specific need is that when horses are worked hard enough to sweat, their diet must be supplemented with salt or mixed electrolytes to replace what has been lost.

When a horse is injured or unwell, it is very important to maintain a micronutrient supply for tissue repair and maintenance at a time when intake of hard feed may be severely restricted. Vitamins A, C, and E will also help to maintain a healthy immune system and so fight disease.

When a significant amount of oil is added to the diet, it is vitally important to add extra anti-oxidants in order to remove the free radicals released when oil is metabolized. The most important anti-oxidants for this purpose are vitamin E and selenium.

When a horse is stressed, anti-oxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, and also selenium and manganese will help it to combat the damaging effects of that stress. Many supplements and balancers contain probiotics as well and when a horse is stressed hormonal changes affect the gut lining, upsetting the microbial balance. Probiotics help to restore this balance. Sources of stress include traveling, competing, showing, moving to a strange environment, changes in feeding or management routine, less than ideal turn-out time, foaling, illness, convalescence, etc. Probiotics are particularly beneficial during convalescence if a course of antibiotics has been given during illness.

When hindgut efficiency is impaired, for example on low-fibre diets, it is important to supplement the diet with the B vitamins that are usually manufactured in it. Probiotics will help to restore hindgut efficiency. To use more specific terms, yeasts will help the beneficial (cellulolytic) bacteria to multiply whilst mannan oligosaccharides (sometimes called pre-biotics) will bond with undesirable (pathogenic) bacteria in the gut and escort them out in the feces.

How

Supplements and balancers, like all feeds, should be introduced to the diet gradually, ideally over four days. The total amount should be divided between the daily feeds. Supplements should be mixed with the normal feed, if none is given then powdered supplements must be mixed with a little damp chop or a handful of soaked shredded beet-pulp or soaked pasture/hi-fiber nuts. A pelleted balancer can be more palatable than a powdered supplement and can be fed entirely on its own which is very convenient for owners.

Whether you feed a supplement or a balancer is often a matter of personal choice, but bear in mind that balancers are feeds that provide very important major nutrients e.g. protein, which provides the building blocks for muscle and is important for bone formation. Where a diet is deficient in protein a balancer will probably be more suitable than a supplement. A prime example would be youngstock. Balancers will build more condition than a supplement containing the equivalent minerals, micronutrients, and probiotics alone, but they can be fed to good-doers providing energy intake can be reduced (for example by substituting balancer for a larger amount of hard feed).

In my opinion, supplements are more suitable than balancers for horses that are already carrying enough weight and are not receiving any hard feed. I would also recommend an appropriate supplement rather than a balancer for laminitis horses and ponies, and for well furnished native ponies and other ‘very good-doers’ in light work. An appropriate supplement mixed with a little chopped forage is the ideal way to ensure micronutrient intake is not compromised for those horses and ponies that convert feed so efficiently that any concentrated feed would make them overweight.

Conversely, horses that need to gain weight, or are working very hard, need their supplements or balancers as a ‘top-up’ to their existing feed. Where very high levels of compound feed are already being fed it would be advisable to consult a nutritionist before adding further micronutrients.

I am concerned about the dangers of unbalancing or over supplementing with micronutrients, which commonly happens when owners buy two or three different products (these can include specialized supplements, broad spectrum supplements, and balancers) and then feed them all together. With certain exceptions, for example, salt (or electrolytes) I believe that specialized supplements, for example for hoof quality or muscle function are more efficient, and safer, when combined with a broad-spectrum base. These combination or fully comprehensive supplements are the ones I would strongly urge you to use because they virtually eliminate the risk of unbalancing or over supplementing your horse’s diet with micronutrients.