All About Feeding Horses Alfalfa

Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Allison Price

What do you know about this leafy green legume,

Alfalfa can be found in some parts of the country as a common part of daily life. Alfalfa is readily available and widely fed so it can be a solid foundation for many horses’ diets. It is also a speciality in other regions. The bales were shipped from different areas and purchased one at a time by a veterinarian to provide nutritional support for certain horses. Alfalfa is not a good choice for some horses, in either those regions. The fragrant green bale is loaded with nutrients, but some horse owners have a lot of misinformation.

We can help you with any questions you may have about alfalfa, regardless of your experience.

Alfalfa Goes Way Back

There are two types of forage available for horses: legumes and grasses. You are likely to be familiar with timothy and orchardgrass. They are long and stemmy and include bermudagrass, timothy and timothy. Alfalfa and clover are forage legumes that are part of the pea family.

Krishona Martinson (PhD), associate professor and specialist in equine extension at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Animal Science in Falcon Heights, states that alfalfa can be grown for horses and other livestock in many parts of the United States.

It was among the first domesticated forages. It was planted and harvested in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere a few thousand years ago. Ray Smith, Ph.D., a University of Kentucky (UK) forage extension specialist, in Lexington, said that early farmers realized its nutritional benefits, particularly for hard-working horses. He says that alfalfa was the main feed for horses in the early armies of those areas.

Smith explains that alfalfa didn’t survive when it was brought from Europe in the 1700s to the east of the U.S.

Feeding Horses Alfalfa

Alfalfa did well when it was brought west by settlers during the California Gold Rush in the 1800s to be used as livestock feed. Smith says that alfalfa was used rapidly in the west because it was suited to this climate and had less acidic soils. “In the late 1800s and early 2000s, we learned more about how to add lime to low-pH soils to make them more suitable for alfalfa cultivation. Plant breeding began in the 1900s. Scientists were able develop alfalfa varieties that are more suited to different soil types in the U.S. Modern plant breeding has also made this legume more resistant to disease.

Alfalfa thrives in well-drained soils today, rather than in wet soils.

What Horses Can Benefit from Alfalfa?

Martinson says that alfalfa is more nutritious than other grasses, and can be harvested at the same maturity stage. It is usually richer in digestible energy, crude protein, calcium, and less non-structural carbohydrates (sugars, starches).

It is an excellent feed for horses who are underweight due to its high nutrient content.

Martinson says that it can be beneficial for horses with muscle problems (due their higher protein needs) and horses with equine metabolism syndrome (EMS) because of the lower amounts of nonstructural carbs.

She believes alfalfa is ideal to horses with high levels of nutrition such as lactating mares, young foals, racing horses, and thin horses.

Martinson advises that horses should be fed with caution to avoid overfeeding and putting them at risk of developing DOD (developmental orthotic disease).

Horses that are sensitive to sugar and carbohydrates (e.g. horses with insulin resistance, pituitary paras intermedia dysfunction, and so on) will have a difficult time. It is important to build a diet that includes a good base of forage. Oats, barley, and corn are all 55-75% carbohydrate.

These horses may also find some grass hays too sugary for their needs. A legume diet or mixed legume/grass diet is a good option to lower sugar intake.

It can be difficult to choose the right hay for the proper balance.

Martinson says that a horse with insulin resistance or overweight needs to eat a lower-sugar hay (the Alfalfa). However, Martinson does not recommend adding calories. “So we often mix the horses who receive legumes and look for a low sugar grass hay to go with it.

Many horse owners purchase bales alfalfa and bales grass hay. They then feed their horses several flakes of grasshay and one flake alfalfa as they need, according to Krista Lea MS, UK forage extension specialist and research analyst. If you have horses that are able to eat the nutrient-dense hay, this can help save money.

She says, “I have three horses that have three different nutritional requirements so I can mix different types of hay for each horse to get the right balance.” For the same effect, you can also add alfalfa cubes or pellets to your grass hay diet.

Horses with stomach ulcers will also find Alfalfa suitable. The extra calcium acts as a buffer to stomach acid. Performance horses might be given alfalfa about an hour before competition or work. This is because stomach acid can splash into the nonglandular portion of the stomach, where there is no protective mucus. Lea explains that chewing can increase saliva production, which helps buffer stomach acid.

Horses that need to build muscle along their topline might be offered the legume by their owners. Stephen Duren, PhD is an equine nutritionist who founded Performance Horse Nutrition in Weiser, Idaho. He says that alfalfa contains amino acids necessary for muscle regeneration. This practice is more common in the East, where there is a lot of marginal grasshay.

Blister Beetles to Be Avoid

The three-striped blister beetle is one species attracted to alfalfa blossoms. | Photo Credit: Courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

These flying insects, whether dead or alive, contain the toxin Cantharidin which can cause death in horses if it is consumed in large quantities. Blister beetles eat alfalfa flowers and may swarm fields during harvest. Hay can contain beetles that have been killed by haying equipment.

The adult blister beetles are born in June, although they can emerge earlier or later depending upon the climate and region. They feed on alfalfa flowers. Ray Smith, PhD is a University of Kentucky forage extension specialist. He says that these beetles are more common in the late summer. Blister beetles are almost always absent from the first, and sometimes second, cuttings of alfalfa because they are generally cut and bailed before the adult beetles emerge.

The years following drought are more likely to see blister beetles. This is also true for central states like Kansas and Oklahoma.

Check a few bales of hay before you buy it to make sure the alfalfa is in bloom. Smith says that you should always inspect the hay before you give it to your customers. Smith says that beetles are very concentrated and if they find one or two, you’ll find many.” He also states that 99 percent of the bloomed hay will not contain beetles.

He says that hay producers for horses who use alfalfa are well aware of the problem of blister beetles. The biggest risk is when someone buys hay for their horse from a neighbor who is just starting in the hay business. Follow the state’s recommendations regarding controlling and scouting blister beetles.

–Heather Smith Thomas

What Horses Shouldn’t Eat Alfalfa

Martinson denies that alfalfa is able to make horses “hot.” However, some owners believe it does. She says that alfalfa has more energy than grass hay of the same maturity. So, a horse who eats a lot of it in its absence may have more energy. The biggest problem with alfalfa in horses is their weight gain when they don’t get enough exercise.

It also provides more nutrients than non-working horses, which can lead to obesity and other issues. Don’t feed your overweight horses or easy-keepers, but give them mature grass hay that is lower in calories than a legume.

Duren says that although Alfalfa can be a great source of nutrients for sport horses it might not be appropriate to offer when horses are hard at work in hot weather. Protein metabolism produces more heat than carbohydrate or fat metabolism. The horse’s ability heat dissipate heat can be affected by this extra heat. Heat stress can also occur when horses sweat more and are less hydrated.

Duren states that extra protein cannot be stored in your body like extra fats or carbohydrates. It must be excreted.

Horses that eat more protein than their bodies can handle will also consume more water to flush out any extra waste products. This causes more urine and more ammonia to be produced.

Duren says that horses can be affected by the irritants in stalls, such as ammonia. Foals are more likely to experience this because they spend less time sitting down and are smaller. Ammonia is heavier and more concentrated than air, and it’s found near the ground.

Although extra protein can be harmful, it is not harmful to a horse that is healthy. Horses with compromised kidneys and livers may find it detrimental. They have difficulty processing and excreting proteins and should be fed a low-protein diet.

Duren doesn’t recommend giving endurance horses straight alfalfa because of its high protein and calcium levels. You don’t want your horse sweating excessively during endurance rides. However, high levels of calcium can affect the horse’s ability for the exercise to mobilize calcium stores. Duren says that endurance athletes can benefit from alfalfa in small quantities, but it should not be their only source of forage.

He says that many performance horses are not dehydrated and can tolerate a higher amount of alfalfa. California has many reining, cutting and other performance horses. They eat a lot alfalfa (due its availability), and balancer pellets. It’s their whole diet and they do great.”

You can’t assume that all alfalfa Hay is high in potassium. However, you should test it.Dr. Stephen Duren

Horses with the genetic muscle disorder hyperkalemic period paralysis (HYPP), are another horse that thrives on low alfalfa. These horses have hyperkalemia. This is an excess of potassium in their blood that causes their muscles to contract faster than normal. It also makes them more susceptible to paralysis or muscle tremors. These horses are especially sensitive to high levels of potassium in alfalfa.

Duren says that the forage’s potassium levels are affected by what plants pull out of the soil. Duren says that it can make a big difference in where and how the alfalfa was planted, as well as whether the soil was fertilized with manure. This really drives the potassium levels up. If my horse was sensitive to potassium, I would rather have the hay tested than just exclude it. You can’t test all alfalfahay for potassium.

Martinson says that horses with unpigmented skin shouldn’t eat alfalfa as they may be susceptible to photosensitization due to black blotch diseases. This mold causes black blotches to the undersides and leaves of legumes including alfalfa. She says that horses who ingest this mold can get sunburnt, which can seriously damage unpigmented areas of their body.

However, the more serious problem with these horses is the liver damage caused by the mold toxins.

Selecting Alfalfa Hay

Good-quality alfalfa should be free of mold and dust. A good leaf-to stem ratio is important as most nutrients are found in the leaves, while the stems have more fibrous material. Smith says that hay should have a green color meaning it has more leaves and isn’t been weathered or rained upon before being put up.

A mixed grass/alfalfa mix is a good choice if your horse doesn’t require the high nutritional value of pure alfalfa. Have the hay tested to determine its nutrient content. Smith says that many factors can impact the levels of protein, energy and minerals, including harvest conditions and maturity.

It is important to inspect your hay for foreign objects, dust, weeds and blister beetles before you start feeding it.

Some poisonous weeds can grow in alfalfa field fields are ragwort and groundsels, Johnson grasses, Sudangrasses, water hemlock and hoary analyssum. These weeds can be avoided by purchasing hay from a company or person who is knowledgeable about how to grow alfalfa without weeds.

Take-Home Message

Plan for your horse’s nutritional requirements when incorporating alfalfa in your horse’s diet. A balanced diet can be created by a veterinarian, nutritionist, or feed salesman. They will also recommend whether to feed this forage.

Martinson says that although alfalfa is often feared by horse owners, it is an excellent feed for horses. Owners should manage their horses’ diets carefully and transition to alfalfa slowly.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!