How Much Alfalfa Pellets to Feed a Horse? [+Benefits & Cons]

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Many equestrians wonder how much alfalfa pellets to feed a horse.

I saw one of the horses at the barn getting them and asked my trainer what their benefits are and how much should be fed.

Here, I will talk about what I learned about alfalfa products if they are good for horses, what to watch out for, and other important alfalfa-related questions.

So, let’s get started!

Are Alfalfa Pellets Good for Horses?

Yes, alfalfa pellets are good for horses if used correctly. They are also a good choice for insulin resistant horses. (3)

organic alfalfa pellets

Alfalfa is a protein-rich type of forage with a green color that is lacking in fiber, so it is important to avoid giving a horse more than they need.

At the same time, its high-calorie content is perfect for horses that need to gain weight.

Before you can understand how much alfalfa pellets to feed a horse, you need to understand if an alfalfa forage diet is a good source of nutrition for them in the first place.

Alfalfa is a rich legume that grows well in hot weather. It is great for nonworking horses that need to increase their sugar intake and performance horses alike.

However, the fiber content is lower than other types of grass hay and it is not a good digestible fiber source. Horses will need a different digestible fiber source.

Good-quality alfalfa forage is a great feed for horses, and they enjoy it. Alfalfa is a long stem forage that is a member of the pea family and has good nutritional content. 

According to Dr. Tania Cubitt, alfalfa is one of several legume forages and an excellent source of crude protein, extra calcium, additional calories, and vitamin A that horses need to meet their nutrient requirements. (1)

The high protein content and levels of calcium help with bone growth and muscle regeneration in healthy horses and horses with muscle problems.

The higher the calcium content in a feed, the more support for bone health. Alfalfa plants are long-stem hay forage with high vitamin and mineral levels making them a better source of nutrition than other dry forages.

It is also a great replacement for concentrate feed and adds calories to a horse’s diet. Horses are herbivores and need a grass diet.

Many recommend a small amount of alfalfa before riding for horses that are prone to ulcers as it helps buffer against stomach acid.

Forage is the most important part of the equine diet. It provides more nutrition than supplements. However, a good horse joint supplement is a must for performance horses on high planes of nutrition

Although I do not feed the horses I ride, I have seen my friends give regular alfalfa pellets or a flake of alfalfa to their horses and they love it.

READ MORE: Types of Horse Grain

Here is a video that explains more about the advantage of alfalfa pellets for horses:

Despite providing nutritional benefits for the majority of horses, including those on a high-protein diet,  there are some types of horses that should not get regular alfalfa pellets, bales of alfalfa, or limited alfalfa in their diet.

What Types of Horses is Alfalfa Bad For?

Performance horses that work in the heat should not be fed alfalfa. This is because protein metabolism creates body heat, and affects horses’ ability to dispel it, which can lead to dehydration and heat stress. 

For the same reason, feeding alfalfa to endurance horses is not a good idea. Giving alfalfa to endurance athletes will dehydrate them faster, because of extra sweating. It should be avoided as part of performance horse nutrition in some cases.

If your horse has hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, or HYPP, and more potassium in their blood because of it, they should receive an alternative forage source or have access to pasture grass.

This is because the potassium content in alfalfa is too high for horses with this metabolic syndrome.

For horses with the above condition, it is good to speak with an equine nutritionist to create the entire diet for managing it.

Can You Feed a Horse Too Much Alfalfa Pellets?

Just like any source of feed,  you can overfeed legume forages or alfalfa for horses. A horse should not receive more than 50% of its hay intake from alfalfa hay or alfalfa cubed. 

However, this percentage of alfalfa should be flexible depending on the nutritional needs of your horse.

Feeding excess amounts of alfalfa pellets to horses can lead to unnecessary weight gain despite being a key food source for horses among other forage products

Also, Alfalfa is high in calcium, so you need to ensure the calcium to magnesium ratio stays at the correct level. “The two minerals are ideally kept within a ratio of 2.5:1 to 3:1, calcium to magnesium” (4)

Some riders report that too much alfalfa makes their horse spooky or that their horse has an intolerance to it. Much of this is anecdotal and there could be other factors at play.

You will have to test it with your horse to see if it changes its behavior.

READ MORE: Can Horses Have Peanut Butter?

Will Alfalfa Pellets Help a Horse Gain Weight?

One benefit of alfalfa as a source of feed is that it promotes weight gain in horses because it has extra protein and greater caloric content than other varieties of hay and other types of food sources for horses.

The protein quality of alfalfa is very good, which makes it a preferred forage for weight gain.

If alfalfa is fed to an overweight horse, it will gain more weight. For those who want their chubby horse to still get some of alfalfa’s benefits, try mixing it with different flakes of grass hay.

Alfalfa is also more flavorful than other hays, so horses are more likely to reach for the alfalfa and eat more. I met a rider that also liked to soak grass pellets for horses that needed to put on weight.

Now that you know more about alfalfa, it is important to know how many pellets to feed a horse. The amount of any type of feed you should give a horse depends on its weight.

How Many Pounds of Alfalfa Pellets to Feed a Horse?

Horses eat 1.5%-2% of their body weight per day, so a 1000 lb horse would need 15-20 pounds of alfalfa pellets or cubes a day. As a general rule, feed 2% of their weight in alfalfa pellets if they are the main meal.

organic alfalfa pellets

However, as I mentioned above it is better that alfalfa only makes up 50% of our horse’s diet. So you will need to balance out the other half with something else.

Horses with insulin resistance are a little trickier to manage because you still need to balance their diet with something that has a low sugar content, such as lower-sugar hay.

CHECK: Cute Horse Eating Hay Video

Do Alfalfa Pellets Have to Be Soaked for Horses?

Apart from how much alfalfa to feed, horse owners are confused about how to feed alfalfa pellets to adult horses.

Alfalfa pellets do not need to be soaked for every horse, but if you have a senior horse, soaking the pellets makes them softer and easier to chew, allowing them to get more nutrition out of their meals.

You can combine the soak with senior feed for very geriatric horses.

If you do soak them, it is best to soak them anywhere between 5-6 hours before feeding to overnight, depending on how soft they need to be.

What Happens If a Horse Eats Too Much Alfalfa?

As with any feed, if your horse eats more alfalfa than usual or more than they need, they will gain weight. Weight gain will happen quickly because alfalfa is a source of nutrients and a source of calories

Another issue, or perhaps the biggest issue with alfalfa as a food source for horses is that it contains excess protein. 

This affects the performance of racehorses and endurance horses due to heat stress. It is also not good for young growing horses as it has been linked with developmental orthopedic disease. (5)

It can also increase the risk of horses developing intestinal enteroliths due to its fiber content being lower than grass hay and its mineral content higher.

Feeding alfalfa with other grass hay reduces the risk of colic and stones in the GI tract, or enteroliths, that may be part of more severe colic episodes. Avoid giving straight alfalfa if you have horses prone to or horses susceptible to colic.

There was a belief that alfalfa caused kidney problems in horses, but this was found to be false (2). It is just one of the multitude of misconceptions about feeding this legume diet.

Even though alfalfa itself does not cause kidney disease or failure, horses with these problems should avoid it because the high protein intake in alfalfa will make these issues worse.

Here is a video that explains why you may want to avoid feeding alfalfa as a sole forage source.

FAQs

Is alfalfa good for senior horses?

Alfalfa is great for senior horses, especially if they have trouble gaining or maintaining weight because it is high in calories and sugar, You can also make it easier for senior horses to chew by soaking it.

Can alfalfa pellets or cubes totally replace hay?

Alfalfa cubes or pellets can be fed on a 1;1 ratio just like hay and they are high in nutrition. They also provide additional protein.
So, they can replace it if desired, however, it is not recommended that all healthy horses eat a diet of alfalfa by itself and instead a mixed grass hay diet.

Is alfalfa a legume?

Alfalfa is a perennial legume and one of many forage legumes. Alfafa needs well-drained soils or soil conditions and less-acidic soil types  Wet soils can weaken the plant and it will not grow well.

How to feed alfalfa pellets to horses?

Feed alfalfa pellets to horses based on their weight, age, and nutritional needs. It is sometimes a good idea to soak them or only to feed it in small amounts.

Conclusion

Ever wonder how much alfalfa pellets to feed a horse? You should provide your horse with around 1% of their body weight in alfalfa hay, pellets, or cubes, but this amount varies by horse.

The biggest benefit is that alfalfa is high in calories, has extra protein and nutrient content, and is great for older horses and underweight horses.

If possible it is best to mix it with grass hay or low-sugar grass hay for horses that need low-sugar diets.

References

  • 1. Alfalfa and Horses | Standlee Forage [Internet]. Standlee Premium Products. [cited 2022 Aug 3]. Available from: https://www.standleeforage.com/nutrition/nutritional-papers/alfalfa-and-horses/
  • 2. Kopp DK. Alfalfa’s Bad Rap [Internet]. Stable Management. 2011 [cited 2022 Aug 3]. Available from: https://stablemanagement.com/articles/alfalfas-bad-rap/
  • 3. All About Feeding Horses Alfalfa | Equine Programs [Internet]. equine.ca.uky.edu. [cited 2022 Aug 3]. Available from: http://equine.ca.uky.edu/news-story/all-about-feeding-horses-alfalfa
  • 4. The Importance of Magnesium in Horse Diets [Internet]. Kentucky Equine Research. 2011 [cited 2022 Aug 3]. Available from: https://ker.com/equinews/importance-magnesium-horse-diets/#:~:text=The%20two%20minerals%20are%20ideally
  • 5. Rodiek A. HAY FOR HORSES: ALFALFA OR GRASS? [Internet]. Available from:
Siun L
Siun L

Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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