Winter Horse Feeding: Ration Balancer Feeds and Supplements

Learn the difference between ration balancer feeds and supplements and how they benefit horses when pastures are scarce.
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Winter Horse Feeding: Ration Balancer Feeds and Supplements
For horses that rely heavily on pasture intake as their forage source ration balancers are especially useful in the winter months. | Photo: iStock

Q. Are ration balancers a good supplement in winter, or do they just add calories and pounds to easy keepers?–Michelle, Steamboat Springs, Colorado

A. Unlike performance feeds, ration balancing feeds aren’t designed with the main goal of adding calories. Rather, they’re designed to provide a quality protein source, as well as minerals and vitamins forage might lack. This typically makes them an ideal commercial feed for easy keepers and horses able to maintain themselves on forage-only diets.

A ration balancer will, of course, add some calories to the horse’s ration. However, due to their high nutrient density recommended serving sizes are small (just 1 to 2 pounds a day); as such calories added per day are considerably less than feeding a performance feed correctly. And, when using a ration balancer properly, the horse’s diet is far better balanced than if you incorrectly use a performance feed by offering a small (1 to 2 pound) serving size.

For some easy keepers even a ration balancer offers too many calories. In these cases, a ration-balancing supplement—with a serving size of just 3 to 6 ounces per day—is an option. Due to their relatively tiny serving, ration balancing supplements don’t provide as much overall crude protein or macrominerals (for example calcium, phosphorus, magnesium) as ration balancing feeds, although they often provide good amounts of key amino acids.

Ration balancers are beneficial year-round, especially for horses being fed primarily hay, as they ensure adequate trace minerals and vitamins that some forages might lack. They also improve the overall mineral balance of most forages, generally ensuring an improved calcium-phosphorus ratio and zinc-copper ratio.

For horses that rely heavily on pasture intake as their forage source ration balancers are especially useful in the winter months. Pasture grass in spring and summer is a good source of protein, vitamin E, and beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A). Pasture grass also provides enough of most key macrominerals. However, as the rate of growth decreases the amount and quality of protein in the pasture decreases and the vitamin E content of the grass also decreases.

While feeding hay will substitute the calories and most of the macrominerals provided by grass, vitamin E is not heat stable and much is lost during grass curing when making hay. Additionally, beta-carotene levels decrease the longer hay is stored. The mineral content of hay is dependent on the properties of the soil where it was grown and can vary widely however most hays, like pastures, are low in copper and zinc.

So, while supplementing trace minerals, such as copper and zinc, is wise year-round for horses on pasture, providing additional sources of vitamins and quality protein is especially important in the winter months when pasture quality is poor and hay is being substituted.

If your horse is reliant on hay as the main forage source either year-round or for certain seasons such as the winter months, a ration balancer is a smart addition to your feeding program. Whether you choose a ration balancing feed or a supplement will depend on your horse, his current condition, and his specific needs. Keep in mind that many horses benefit from being fed a ration balancer year-round even when on good-quality pasture.

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Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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