The concept of a balanced ration in equine nutrition is similar to humans eating the daily portion of the four food groups.
The first step is to balance water intake. Here the balance is very much like money, you cannot have too much. Water is the most important nutrient in your horse’s diet and needs to be closely monitored.
The second nutrient to balance is long stemmed-fibre. However, much needed research is necessary to substantiate what long stemmed-fibre implies in equine nutrition. In regards to fibre, the two general rules to follow are: 1) to provide at least 1% of the horse’s body weight as long stem fibre, and 2) the daily amount of starch-based feed provided should not exceed the amount of long stemmed-fibre provided, with the possible exception of young foals and racehorses.
Thirdly you will need to balance calorie intake, whereby the amount of calories provided is in relation to the amount required to sustain life and growth, lactation or performance. The amount of calories needed over and above the amount provided by long stemmed-fibre should always and only be determined by the horse’s body condition and not other factors like attitude or colic etc. These other factors can be determined by the type of calories, the way the feed is processed, environmental/weather conditions or ration management.
The fourth step requires both a good nutritional understanding and good horsemanship. It involves balancing the three calorie types: fat, starch and fibre to suit your horse. The ideal balance of calorie types will depend on the discipline or activity performed, amount and type of forage fed, amount of calories needed to maintain desired body condition, attitude of the horse, any health issues such as colic and founder, and finally any metabolic issues such as tying-up or insulin resistance.
The fifth step is to balance minerals and vitamins. There are two groups of minerals. Macro-minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, sulfur and chloride. Micro-minerals include iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium and cobalt. Because of their interactions, minerals need to be balanced to meet the needs of the horse while avoiding toxicity or interactions. As for vitamins, they also need to be balanced to meet the horse’s needs while avoiding toxicity, which is a possibility with vitamins A and D. The requirements for vitamin K and the water soluble B-vitamins can be met by providing top quality pasture and consequently through bacterial fermentation in the hindgut. Unfortunately, pasture is not always an option. Furthermore, exercise and stress might have a negative effect on the micro-flora and hence the production of these B-vitamins. For this reason, supplementing for B-vitamins is necessary in certain cases.
Balancing calorie types and nutrients, especially minerals and vitamins, requires a strong nutritional background and quite a bit of time. When in doubt, do not hesitate to call your equine nutrition specialist. He or she will be more than willing to provide information to help you meet the nutritional needs of your horse. Your horse will thank you for it!