Supplements 101: 3 Supplements Every Horse Owner Should Know

horse feed supplements

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Every year, ongoing scientific research helps us better understand the nutritional needs of our equine partners. As our understanding of equine nutrition advances, feed companies scramble to promote new products to better help us meet the needs of our four-legged family members. The most common supplements every horse owner needs to know about are: magnesium, biotin, and ration balancers.


Why are magnesium supplements important?

Magnesium is mostly known as the main ingredient in supplements for moody mares. Many horsemen are unaware of the role magnesium plays in a horse’s body. According to Performance Equine Nutrition, magnesium regulates over 325 enzymes in the body.  Magnesium increases oxygen delivery to muscle tissue and promotes muscle strength and endurance. Magnesium also plays a vital role in the metabolism of carbohydrates and amino acids.
Spring grass is deficient in magnesium due to growing too fast. This leads to many horses being hotter and more difficult to ride.  This can be misattributed to too many carbohydrates in the grass. While carbs do play a role, supplementing magnesium often stabilizes many horses attitude at this time of year.

How much magnesium should I supplement?

The nice thing about magnesium is that it is hard to overdose. Excess magnesium simply passes through the horse’s digestive system. This can lead to temporary loose manure, but it is generally harmless. That being said, don’t go shoveling on the magnesium. 6 to 10 grams is often enough. Or you can use the free feed method. I put some magnesium in a bowl by itself and let it out in the runin shelter. If the horses feel like they need some, they help themselves. Horses are often better at knowing what they need than humans. Bear in mind, if a horse has a significant deficiency, it is better to do controlled feeds until they are used to it so they don’t eat the whole bowl at once. But once they have reach an equilibrium, free feeding for maintenance is perfectly fine.

What magnesium supplements do you suggest?

You’ve got many options here. You are looking for magnesium oxide supplement. There are lots of “magnesium supplements” out there marketed for horses, but most of them will only contain 5% magnesium. You want something stronger — 50% or more — like the magnesium oxide supplement from Uckele (left). The other option is finding a local feed mill and asking them if they have a cattle supplement like MagOx. It will be in a 50lb bag behind the counter.


Why are biotin supplements important?

Biotin is what creates healthy skin, hooves and coat. Have a horse with brittle hooves, dry skin, or a thin mane? Supplement biotin. It is the building block of skin cells, hair growth, and healthy hooves. Horses that are out on healthy pasture should be fine. But those on a hay diet probably need some supplementation as much of the naturally occurring biotin from the grasses is lost during the hay drying process.

How much biotin should I supplement?

A horse should consume a minimum of 15 mg per day of biotin. I also like to use the free feed method with this. I set up a buffet in the runin shed with loose salt, biotin powder, and magnesium and seperate bowls and the horses take what they need when they need it. I only do this with these minerals though because they are not dangerous in large quantities.
It could take 6 to 8 months to see much improvement though and, depending on the problem, it could take a year or more to get the desired results.

What biotin supplements do you suggest?

I go to the local feed mill and get the brown bag of biotin from behind the counter. If you don’t have a feed mill that carries it near you, you can get biotin powder online, like this powder (left) which is 100%, pharmaceutical grade, biotin with no fillers or additives. I stay away from “biotin” supplements marketed for horses because, when you read the label they contain so little biotin that the horse is barely getting 5 to 10 mg per day as opposed to the 15 mg per day minimum that most horses need.

Ration Balancers

One feed product that is quickly rising in popularity is ration balancers. It is also sometimes sold under the label of “complete vitamin and mineral supplement.”

What is a ration balancer?

Ration balancers are pelleted feeds that were originally formulated for young, growing horses to provide the necessary amino acids, vitamins, and minerals without excess calories that could put young horses at risk for developing orthopedic diseases. Now, however, ration balancers have been developed for all stages of a horses life to fill in the gaps of most common diets.

Ration balancers often contain a crude protein level of 28-32%. This makes it a far more concentrated feed than your standard pelleted feed, allowing it to be fed in much smaller quantities. Feeding recommendations for ration balancers are often only 1 to 2 pounds per day to get the same amount of nutrients as you might find in recommended amounts of 12% crude protein feed. This makes ration balancers a good option for horses that cannot tolerate high sugar and starch levels. Horses with Cushing’s disease, laminitis, and hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) often benefit from these types of concentrates. The lower sugars is also good for horse’s with overly hyperactive behavior as it gives them the nutrients they need without the sugar rush.

How do I choose a ration balancer?

Ration balancers are often categorized by diet type: grass/grass hay diet and alfalfa diet. Then they are further broken down by life stages and workload. That being said, it is not enough to know what type of diet your horse is on, his age, and his workload. You must also know the quality of the forage in the diet and the geographic location where it was grown as this could point to additional protein, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies. Getting the forage tested is the only sure way to know exactly what nutrients your horse might be lacking.

It is also important to know what other concentrates your horse is getting. Many easy keepers can have a ration balancer as their only concentrated feed. But harder keepers still need those extra calories. The vitamin and mineral content of every element of your horse’s diet must be taken into consideration.

If in doubt, contact a certified equine nutritionist. Most of your average vets will not know much about equine diets, so depending on your regular vet for nutritional advice can be risky if you don’t know their credentials in the field of equine diets.

Can a ration balancer be used with other concentrates?

Yes, a ration balancer can be used with other concentrates, but you must be very careful to keep the diet balanced so as not to throw off the vitamin and minerals levels and do more harm than good. You should also be very careful supplementing individual minerals on top of ration balancer without careful consideration for how it will impact the overall balance of the diet.

What ration balancers do you recommend for a grass hay diet?

Triple Crown 30% is always my first choice as it is one that I have had great success with in the past when I can get it. It has a good balance of Omega-3s and Omega-6s, low starch and NSC (carbs). It contains no corn. It does have come molasses but it’s so low on the list it barely even registers.

Blue Seal Winning Touch Sunshine Plus is what I use now due to limited options in my area. All of my horses have done very well on it although I do not like how high corn and molasses are on the ingredients list. This is the biggest problem I have with Blue Seal feeds, but this the best ration balancer I could find in my area and all of my horses are healthy, shiny, and happy, so it’s not too bad if you can’t find the Triple Crown.

Purina Enrich Plus is one that I have heard great things about but I haven’t actually gotten to use yet. It is slightly higher protein (32% instead of 30%) and it is guaranteed to have no corn or oats. I do feed Purina Strategy during the winter when the horses are not out on pasture, so I have confidence in Purina products. Some people don’t like Purina’s lack of a “fixed formula.” I actually prefer this as it better guarantees the nutritional content of the feed. I am seriously considering giving this one a try.

What ration balancers do you recommend for an alfalfa diet?

Oh boy. If you are asking this question I sincerely hope your horse is on some sort of specialty diet due to a weird health problem I’ve never heard of because basing a diet around alfalfa is never a good idea unless you have a reliable equine nutritionist involved under very special circumstances. Please, please, please switch your horse over to a grass hay diet if at all possible. The amount of health and behavioral problems I’ve seen from alfalfa diets is astounding. There is a reason it is often referred to as “horsey crack.”

That being said, I do not know of any ration balancers that are specifically marketed for alfalfa diets. Triple crown used to have one that was lower protein to compensate for the high protein alfalfa, but it has been off the market for a while now, probably because there wasn’t much demand for it. Alfalfa can be used to supplement grass hay, but it should never be used as the primary forage for your horse’s diet.

Cover Photo by rihaij

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