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Alfalfa for Horses: Know When to Pass on This ForageBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · September 26, 2016

When grown, cured, and baled with care, alfalfa (lucerne) hay proves appropriate for many classes of horses. Because of its high energy content and nutrient density, alfalfa is fed extensively around the world. Management situations arise, however, that preclude the use of alfalfa for certain horses.

Circumvent alfalfa hay in these circumstances:

Developmental orthopedic disease.  Though research has uncovered a genetic component to some forms of developmental orthopedic disease (DOD), other forms can be traced to nutritional disturbances, including overfeeding of energy. “High-calorie diets are one cause of physitis, which can trigger joint swelling and lameness when severe. For young horses experiencing signs of physitis, a diet revamp might be in order,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor with Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Consultation with an equine nutritionist is best, and one suggestion by the nutritionist may involve replacing alfalfa hay with good-quality grass hay, as grass hay will contribute fewer calories to the diet. Hay grown for dairy cattle, which is frequently cultivated under the best growing conditions and therefore chock-full of energy, is oftentimes not appropriate for fast-growing foals, weanlings, and yearlings.

Easy keepers. Horses with sluggish metabolisms gain and maintain weight easily, so an easy keeper’s diet typically consists of forage and an appropriate vitamin and mineral supplement. “For these horses, alfalfa is usually not the best choice, as it packs a wallop in terms of energy delivery. To keep the weight of easy keepers in check, look for grass hay of middling quality. Hay should be free of mold, dust, and other impurities, but it does not need to be first-class forage,” Whitehouse remarked.

How does an owner differentiate high-quality hay from mid-quality hay? High-quality hay will be soft with an abundance of leaves, and stems will be pliable; the color will usually be rich and consistent throughout the bale; and the hay will smell fresh and especially appealing, even after some months of storage. Mid-quality hay might contain fewer leaves and more stems; and color may range from a dull green to a greenish-yellow. Visual appraisal of hay can be substantiated by laboratory analysis, an inexpensive way to determine quality.

Metabolic cases.  Horses diagnosed with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are typically overweight. Daily exercise and diet revision will help slim down horses. “Alfalfa is one component that can be safely removed from the diet of metabolic horses. In its stead, a mid-quality grass hay should be fed in appropriate quantities,” Whitehouse said.

For horses on a slimming diet, at least 1 to 1.5% of body weight should be fed. To keep horses from eating daily portions too quickly, hay can be placed in a slow-feed haynet, which is constructed much like a traditional haynet but with much smaller holes, causing the horse to pluck hay a little at a time.

Uncertain if alfalfa hay should be part of your horse’s diet? Have a complete diet evaluation by a Kentucky Equine Research (KER) nutrition consultant. Answer a few questions to get the ball rolling!