Horses gravitate toward alfalfa like kids gravitate toward ice cream -- most equines attack this tasty legume with gusto. If your horse is new to alfalfa, treat it as you would any new food: Introduce it slowly to see how he reacts to it and to give his digestive system time to adapt.
If your horse has not experienced digestive upset since you’ve owned him, you’re not only lucky -- you’re an anomaly. Horses’ digestive systems are notoriously sensitive. Frequent bouts of mild colic are not uncommon, and they're reminders that a severe one, possibly requiring surgery, may be lurking. Feeding your horse alfalfa may not eliminate this fear, but it is easier for horses to digest. In fact, veterinarians recommend feeding it to horses after colic surgery, when grain is forbidden for several weeks or permanently. Substituting some of your horse's concentrated grain pellets and grass hay with alfalfa may soothe his frequent digestive upsets.
High-quality alfalfa has 20 percent to 25 percent more calories per pound than typical grass hay or pasture grass. If your horse is in a heavy work and competition program, his energy requirements are much higher; alfalfa may be a good choice for him. This calorie-dense legume also helps pregnant and lactating mares, old horses and young horses gain and maintain weight. Try it for horses who are notoriously "hard keepers" -- those who have a hard time gaining weight. In fact, adding alfalfa to your horse’s regular diet of grass hay can actually induce him to eat more grass hay as he’s eating his alfalfa.
Ask most horse people what they know about alfalfa’s nutritional content and many will respond, “High protein.” Alfalfa is higher in protein than grass hay, ranging from 13 percent protein to 21 percent depending on the alfalfa's stage of maturity when cut. This makes it ideally suited for performance horses and others who need more protein, such as lactating mares. But it is also a rich source of calcium and has a higher overall vitamin content than regular grass hay.
Availability and Forms
Always purchase alfalfa from a reputable farmer or feed store. You, and your feed store owner, need to be particular about its origin; blister beetles, which produce a toxin that can be fatal to horses, are more prevalent in the southern and western United States and are attracted to alfalfa's flowers. If your feed store is out or you are overly concerned about blister beetles, you can purchase alfalfa in cubed and pelleted form. Creating a mash with alfalfa cubes or pellets is an effective way of getting more moisture into your horse’s gut, particularly in extreme hot and cold weather or when recovering from surgery.
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Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.