FAQ’s About Horses and Alfalfa – The Horse

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Common (as well as a few less-common) things to consider when feeding this forage

Alfalfa is a perennial legume forage commonly used in horse diets. Nutrient-rich, highly palatable, widely available, and affordable, alfalfa can benefit a variety of horses. While many horse owners and farm managers consider alfalfa a mainstay in their feeding programs, the forage remains a source of questions and confusion. In this article we’ll address some common, as well as less-common, considerations you need to make when feeding your horses alfalfa.

What horses benefit from alfalfa in their diets?

Alfalfa is a great hay for some but not all horses, says Krishona Martinson, MS, PhD, professor and equine extension specialist in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Animal Science, in St. Paul.

“Compared to cool-season grasses (orchardgrass, timothy, fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, and perennial ryegrass), alfalfa is generally higher in digestible energy, crude protein, and calcium and is lower in fiber values and nonstructural carbohydrates” such as sugars and starches, she explains. “Therefore, alfalfa is best-suited for horses with elevated caloric needs—for example, performance horses and broodmares in late gestation and early lactation.”

Because of its nutritional characteristics, alfalfa is also a good choice if you’re managing thin horses, picky eaters, those prone to ulcers, and thin horses diagnosed with or prone to laminitis (inflammation in and damage to tissues that suspend the coffin bone within the hoof capsule), insulin resistance (a reduction in insulin sensitivity that makes it more difficult for cells to take up blood sugar for metabolism or storage), or other metabolic syndromes. Martinson cautions that alfalfa should be fed carefully to young, growing horses.

“Its energy density can lead to rapid growth rates, which can lead to a number of disorders in growing horses if not properly supplemented with other required nutrients,” she says.

Martinson also points out that alfalfa might be less suitable for horses that do not need additional calories, such as idle horses, horses on maintenance diets, or easy keepers, because it can lead to undesirable weight gain. This article continues in the October 2020 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of the issue to continue reading. Current magazine subscribers can access the digital edition here. 

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