Horses need forage and lots of it. If you buy hay, you have a choice between grass hay and alfalfa hay. At certain times and places, you may also have the option of a grass/alfalfa mix. Here’s how to make sense of these options.
Different plants. First understand that grass and alfalfa have different properties because they are different plants. Grass is … well, grass. Alfalfa is a legume in the same class as clover and soybeans. Compared to grass, alfalfa has more calories per pound (i.e., it is more “calorie dense”), more minerals (especially calcium), and more protein. Digesting alfalfa generates more body heat so your horse will be hotter in the thermal sense when he gets alfalfa. He may also be hotter in the behavioral sense because he will have more energy from the extra calories. This seems to be especially true for horses that are already hyperactive by nature. Horses find alfalfa more palatable than grass and will always eat it first if given both.
How to use alfalfa. The default forage for horses is grass. You should have a reason to feed alfalfa. Think of it as higher-octane fuel for your horse. If your horse stays outside in very cold weather, you can feed alfalfa to help him stay warmer. If your horse expends a lot of energy and breaks down a lot of muscle tissue in his training or daily work, alfalfa is a good choice as the primary forage because of its higher levels of calories and protein. For horses with a medium work load, a combination of grass and alfalfa – either grown together as a mixed forage or purchased separately – works well. By the way, feeding too much alfalfa will not burn up a horse’s kidneys. This is a myth. In the words of equine consultant, Patrick Cassady, you’ll just get “more sweat, more urine, and sometimes more attitude.”
Alfalfa and ulcers. Alfalfa can help if your horse has stomach ulcers because of its higher calcium content. Calcium is an antacid; it buffers stomach acid. However, the main management strategy with ulcers, both in their treatment and prevention, is to have regular forage feedings throughout the day. The exact combination of grass and alfalfa hay that works best for your horse is for you to figure out as you monitor his behavior and body condition. If you do need to make a change, for any reason, be sure to do it gradually. Take a week to 10 days and give the beneficial bacteria in the hindgut time to adapt to the changes in their environment.
When not to feed alfalfa. Some serious horsemen feed nothing but alfalfa to their horses and seem to have no problems. However, there are still some good guidelines to observe. Feeding alfalfa to a hard-working horse in hot weather can lead to excessive sweating and overheating. This is a good time to switch to a grass hay and an alternative source of calories, such as a modern low-starch mix. If a horse has too much energy for its rider to handle, alfalfa is not the right choice for forage. Finally, be very careful about feeding cattle-grade alfalfa to horses. Cattle-grade alfalfa is typically coarser and more difficult for the horse to process. More important, it may contain mold, which is fine for cattle but can be deadly for horses. Always keep in mind that horses and cattle have very different digestive systems. If you buy alfalfa, make sure it is meant for horses.
Final thought. Alfalfa is an important tool in the equine diet. Don’t be afraid to use it. Just be sure you’re making the best possible deal for your horse when you do.
Special thanks to Patrick (Pat) Cassady, equine consultant for ADM Animal Nutrition, for his input on this article. If you found it useful, please like, share, and comment.