Complete Feeds vs. Ration Balancers: What’s the Difference?

One’s designed to be the horse’s whole diet, while the other should be added to a ration. Which is best for your horse?

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Complete Feeds vs. Ration Balancers: What
Ration balancers are low-calorie, nutrient-dense feeds designed to be fed alongside forage. | Photo: iStock
Q. In several of the articles you have written, you mention feeding a ration balancer to horses consuming a diet comprised predominantly of forage. What is the difference between a ration balancer and a complete feed?

Nancy M., New Mexico

A. When I start working with new clients, I commonly find that they are feeding their horses a complete feed at a rate that’s less than the recommended daily intake. When I ask why they have chosen a complete feed, the response is often something like, “It is complete and provides him with all the nutrients he needs.” But, in reality, this is very unlikely to be true when the product is fed at a couple of pounds a day (typically well below the recommended daily intake). These clients have gotten complete feeds confused with ration balancers, so your question is a very good one!

“Complete” is a term used to describe a feed that contains everything your horse needs in his diet, including the forage; thus, complete feeds can be fed as the sole ration—no need for hay or pasture, just provide water and the complete feed. As a result, they tend to have very large serving sizes, often around 1.5% of the horse’s body weight. Conversely, a ration balancer is designed to be fed alongside forage and aims to complement common forages’ nutrient profiles

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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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