EQUINE - Balancers Explained
6 Mar 2020
By Dr Vicki Glasgow, Harbro Nutritionist
There are literally hundreds of choices of balancers in the market place. Not that long ago there were just a handful to choose from, whereas now they have become very specialised with specific balancers for all types and ages and stages. From conversations with customers, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the use of these, even though they are used quite widely.
In general, balancers are a very useful part of our feeding toolkit but what are they, and how and when should we be using them, and more importantly when shouldn’t we?
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So what actually are balancers? This type of feed has existed for many years in the agricultural world. Here these products are called concentrates or protein concentrates, which is a more accurate and easier to understand description. Farmers use these products to mix in with their own cereals and forage to provide a feed which contains all that their animals need. In a nutshell, balancers (when fed at the recommended daily level) provide the horse with all the vitamins, trace elements and minerals that they require plus high quality protein in a small (concentrated) amount so that there is very little energy contribution on top of the essentials. The name balancer has arisen because the original premise was that it would balance all that is missing when a horse is fed on just forage, and therefore make a balanced ration for a horse in light work or resting.
What are you trying to balance?
The healthiest diet for a horse is one which is based on ad-lib forage, as this is how nature intended it. By using a balancer we are attempting to make up for all that is missing in a forage based diet. Obviously it would actually be impossible to do this because all forages have a different mineral analysis as do all pastures, so really the naming of these products is actually a bit of a misnomer, and this is perhaps where a lot of the confusion comes from. In order to tick the right boxes for all situations the balancer will provide all that a horse requires, not just the bits that are missing from your particular forage.
Balancer or vitamin & mineral supplement?
Sometimes what would normally be described as a vitamin & mineral supplement gets called a balancer, which is fine as these products are trying to “balance” the vitamins and minerals that are lacking in your horse’s diet. However it can lead to confusion as to what job the product is doing. If you are looking to supplement vitamins and minerals in a good doer or a horse that is in light work, or to top up your feed, as you are feeding below recommended levels, then a vitamin and mineral supplement is perfect. Also, if you are feeding linseed meal or full fat soya at conditioning levels, a vitamin and mineral supplement is ideal, otherwise by feeding a balancer you could be over supplementing protein! As a general rule vitamin and mineral supplements tend to be fed at less than 200g/head/day for a 500kg horse. If however, you need your horse to receive quality protein, at a level which will actually be of use for building topline or to ensure your working horse has enough protein in its diet when it is on a fibre only diet, then you need a protein containing balancer. These are generally fed at 50-100g/100kg bodyweight (500g for a 500kg horse) and the first raw material on the list in descending order should be hipro soya or linseed and possibly also whey further down the list, as sources of quality protein. If you are looking at a balancer that is designed to be fed at the higher level and the top ingredient is not soya or linseed then it may be worth considering a vitamin and mineral supplement instead or, switch to a balancer that does contain quality protein if your horse is lacking in muscle.
When to feed balancers
Due to the nature of them balancers can pretty much be used for most horses, and for many different levels of work. They are ideal for good doers that are in light to light-medium levels of work as they provide all that the horse needs. They also provide the flexibility to be able to add and subtract (as always done gradually), oil, sugar beet and/or oats as the work load changes, without drastically changing the basic ration (forage plus balancer). They are also ideal for poor eaters as all the goodness is offered in a very small amount. Veterans that are good doers and young animals will also benefit from the use of a balancer, as the high quality protein in the balancer helps build muscle and prevent excessive muscle loss. Convalescing horses also benefit from the use of a balancer pellet as it provides them with all they require to get better. If you have a good doer who is not doing a significant amount of work, or none at all, then the balancer pellet may be too much for them. In this situation a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement (check out Harbro One Scoop) will work well with a handful of chaff; this is probably the case for any horse prone to laminitis too. Competition horses can also benefit from a balancer being used as a top-up as it can provide the extra vitamins and trace elements that a hard working horse requires, in particular the antioxidant effect of Vitamin E and selenium, but care must be taken not to over supplement.
More is not necessarily better!
The biggest potential problems arise when balancer pellets are fed with other supplements. The result can be an imbalance in nutrients or even worse, a toxic level of one or more nutrients! This situation can occur where a supplement (normally a hoof or broad spectrum one) is fed along with a balancer or the full recommended amount of a compound feed. Most nutrients and minerals have interactions with several other minerals. Changing the amount of one can result in another becoming deficient. Zinc is important for healthy skin and hooves but in excess can lock up copper, which is also important for healthy skin and hooves! Selenium is essential for many functions in the body and is a powerful antioxidant but deficiency and toxicity levels are within a narrow margin. Check labels and if a supplement you are feeding over and above your balancer contains selenium use with care and check with the manufacturer of the product if in doubt. Have the information from both labels to hand. Be sensible. If you are feeding half the recommended daily amount of your compound and are using the balancer to top it up then just use half the balancer (not all). The same premise would apply if you are using a vitamin & mineral supplement to top up. Use proportions and it will prevent any imbalances or potential toxicity problems. It will also save you some money which has got to be a good thing!