Best Alternatives to Daily Supplementation for Horses

Q: My horse is fed hay and gets turned out each day on poor-quality pasture. I know that I need to be feeding a balancer to ensure he is getting all the nutrition he needs, but I can only get to the barn three or four times a week, and my barn owners don’t give grain. Should I give it to him on the days I do go out? Is it doing anything, and is it okay for him to get it only sporadically, or am I doing more harm than good?

A: You’re quite right that, to ensure a diet is meeting all your horse’s nutritional requirements, he needs a balancer feed or supplement. Forages can easily provide a horse with all necessary calories, protein, and most of the necessary macrominerals—in particular calcium and phosphorus. However, they often fall short in supplying necessary trace minerals, especially copper and zinc. Dried forages and poor pasture also tend to offer inadequate amounts of vitamin E and omega fatty acids.

Forages might also have a poorly balanced mineral profile. I’ve tested a number of grass hays over the past couple of years here in California that turned out to have very low calcium to phosphorus ratios. For example 1.1:1 when an ideal ration is 1.5 to 2:1. Occasionally the calcium level is lower than phosphorus, which is something more typical of grain hays. This can lead to inadequate calcium consumption, hyperparathyroidism, and bone problems.

While hays differ in their mineral profile based on farming practices and geographic area, they typically have some inadequacies and imbalances. You can fix these inadequacies by feeding a good balancer feed or supplement. In feed form these are pellets that tend to be high in protein (often 25-30%) and are very heavily fortified with minerals and vitamins so that you only need to feed your horse 1-2   pounds per day.

Note that while the crude protein requirement for horses is nearly always met when feeding adequate forage, the quality of that protein might not always be optimal, leading to amino acid shortfalls. This can impact a horse’s ability to develop muscle, quality hoof, and coat. High-protein balancer pellets typically contain soybean meal, which is a good source of quality protein, and some contain additional key amino acids in pure form. While the protein percentage is high, actual grams of protein consumed is relatively low due to the small serving size.

Ration Balancers and Supplementation

Balancing supplements are a great option for the super easy keeper, because they get the job done in a few ounces rather than a couple of pounds and, therefore, reduce calorie intake. However, while they tend to do an equally good job as the balancing feeds in supplying trace minerals and vitamins, they might not provide enough macrominerals or protein due to their smaller serving size. Whether you select a balancing feed or supplement will depend on available forages and the individual horse’s needs.

The National Research Council has set out a daily horse requirement for energy, protein, some omega fatty acids, macro and trace minerals, and fat-soluble and some water-soluble vitamins. Ideally, your horse’s diet needs to meet these requirements every day. However, many horse owners such as yourself find it difficult to feed supplements every day. While it might be optimal to provide the horse with its requirement every day, keep in mind that horses in their natural setting are unlikely to be meeting their requirements every day. In the wild, some days there’s an overabundance, the next not so much. Inconsistent nutrient intake is more of an issue for a hard-working horse, broodmare, or growing youngster than an adult horse in light or no work. Certainly providing your horse with a balancing feed or supplement on the days you go to the barn is better than never doing it at all.

Diet Consistency

We all know that we shouldn’t make sudden feed changes, and one concern I hear from people is that if they can’t feed a feed every day is this creating too much fluctuation? This is certainly a risk, especially for more sensitive horses, but if you are feeding the feed approximately every other day versus three days back-to-back, and then not again for four days, there’s likely less of a risk. Of the commercial feeds available, balancer pellets are also likely a safer option for this kind of every-other-day feeding than performance feeds. The serving size at 1 or 2 pounds is small and shouldn’t overwhelm the small intestine, and the majority of the ingredients are absorbed prior to reaching the hindgut.

Feeding large meals of nonforage-based feed is never advised due to the risk of undigested feed entering and disrupting the hindgut. This becomes a potentially greater issue if the feed is offered sporadically.

Don’t Feed Extra!

Don’t be tempted to feed extra balancer feed or supplement to make up for the days you miss. If you do feed more, you run a greater risk of your horse experiencing gastrointestinal disturbance. And, if you overwhelm the intestines’ ability to absorb the nutrients, they’ll pass unabsorbed anyway, which defeats the purpose.

Another Option

Another option when you cannot get to the barn every day is to use a free-choice balanced mineral that your horse has access to all the time. These aren’t my personal favorite, because you don’t know what the horse is actually consuming, but they can be useful in certain situations. There’s no scientific evidence that horses naturally know what they need regarding mineral consumption. While horses might be able to determine that eating certain plants makes them feel good or bad, they don’t know that they need a specific mineral, for example, copper. This is why I’m not a fan of programs that offer minerals individually as opposed to free-choice mineral mixes with a balanced profile.

Salt is the only mineral horses have an identifiable craving for. Some free-choice minerals, therefore, have salt as their base, while others use a base of ingredients, such as molasses or flax. They work on the assumption that the horse will eat the required intake each day. If you choose to go this route, make sure the version you choose offers a balanced profile of minerals and vitamins. Take care to ensure your horse’s consumption isn’t excessive and, on average, meets the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Note that trace mineral salt blocks won’t provide enough trace minerals to meet daily needs when consumed at a level to meet daily sodium requirements of about 1 ounce per a day. These blocks also don’t provide key vitamins, such as vitamin E. While such blocks might not help with trace mineral and vitamin requirements, salt should always be available.