Help! My Horse Is Losing Weight on a Ration Balancer

Q. I feed my 16.2-hand Appendix Quarter Horse hunter/jumper 2 pounds of an equine ration balancer each day along with 24 pounds of hay. I’ve noticed that he has been dropping some weight this winter, and I’m wondering whether I should feed him more of the ration balancer?

A. You’re feeding what I would expect is about 2% of your horse’s body weight as forage per day, which is a good amount of forage. It also sounds as though you’re feeding the ration balancer correctly. Most ration balancers recommend feeding 1 to 2 pounds per day to an average-sized horse—some a little more, some a little less. I suggest you estimate your horse’s weight, read the feeding instructions, and confirm you’re feeding the correct amount of ration balancer. If you are, I don’t recommend increasing the amount.

Assuming your horse doesn’t have intestinal parasites, has good dental health, and is otherwise healthy, inadequate caloric intake is the most likely cause of weight loss. Ration balancers are highly fortified with minerals, vitamins, and often quality protein, but they’re not designed as a significant calorie source. Feeding more balancers than the manufacturer recommends will likely result in an excess of minerals, which the horse will excrete, while not really addressing your horse’s need for extra calories. If you feed significantly more balancer than recommended, you could end up with excessive levels of selenium, which can have significant negative health consequences.

Add More Calories

A better approach would be to add a more appropriate source of additional calories. You could try feeding more hay; however, not all horses will eat more hay. If you’re feeding straight grass hay, you could try substituting some of the grass hay with alfalfa, because alfalfa has more calories pound-for-pound than grass hay. Most likely, though, you will need to feed something else.

Because you have balancer, you could add unfortified feeds with the balancer that are higher in calories, such as sugar beet pulp or rice bran. Beet pulp provides calories from fermentable fiber, and rice bran is quite high in fat as well as moderately high in starch. These days, most available rice brans have added calcium carbonate, so the old concerns of too much phosphorus are no longer an issue. Rice bran and beet pulp complement each other quite well, and feeding 1 or 2 pounds of each combined with the balancer might get your horse back to ideal weight.

Another Option: Performance or Senior Feed

Another option is feeding a high-fat, high-fiber performance or senior feed. Initially, you could maintain the balancer at the current level and feed a couple of pounds of a performance or senior feed. This serving would be well below these feeds’ recommended feeding levels, which makes the balancer still necessary. If you find this amount is inadequate and decide to increase the performance/senior feed more, you’ll likely need to reduce the balancer amount. If you end up feeding these at the manufacturers’ recommended levels, you’ll no longer need the balancer, because the performance/senior feed should provide adequate minerals and vitamins to meet daily requirements.

If you make these changes and don’t see an improvement in your horse’s weight within a couple of weeks, I recommend a veterinary exam for your horse to make sure no other underlying issue is behind his weight loss.