Why not to feed alfalfa to horses?

Answered by Cody Janus

There are several reasons why feeding alfalfa to horses may not be the best choice, especially for horses that do not have adequate exercise. One of the biggest issues is the potential for weight gain. Alfalfa is a nutrient-dense forage that supplies more calories and nutrients than most nonworking horses need. This can lead to excessive weight gain and obesity, which in turn can contribute to a host of health problems such as laminitis, insulin resistance, and joint issues.

Horses that are not receiving regular exercise may not be able to burn off the excess calories provided by alfalfa. This can result in an energy surplus, leading to weight gain. It’s important to remember that horses have evolved as grazing animals, constantly moving and foraging for food. When horses are confined to a stall or paddock without enough exercise, their natural energy expenditure decreases, and their dietary needs may need to be adjusted accordingly.

Additionally, alfalfa is known for its high protein content, which can also contribute to weight gain. Protein is an essential nutrient for horses, but excessive levels can be detrimental, especially if the horse’s activity level does not require such high protein intake. The excess protein may be converted into fat and stored in the body, leading to weight gain.

Another consideration is the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in alfalfa. While alfalfa is rich in calcium, it may not provide the ideal balance of calcium and phosphorus that horses require. An imbalance in this ratio can interfere with the horse’s ability to absorb and utilize these minerals properly, potentially leading to skeletal issues such as developmental orthopedic diseases in young horses.

Feeding alfalfa hay exclusively, without providing other forage options, can also lead to digestive issues. Horses are designed to have a constant flow of forage through their digestive system, and a sudden change or lack of forage can disrupt the natural balance of gut bacteria and increase the risk of colic or other digestive disorders.

It’s important to note that every horse is unique, and individual dietary needs can vary. Some horses may tolerate alfalfa well and benefit from its nutritional profile, especially those in heavy work or with specific dietary requirements. However, for the average nonworking horse without adequate exercise, it is generally advisable to limit or balance the amount of alfalfa in their diet to avoid unnecessary weight gain and associated health issues.

Feeding alfalfa to horses can lead to weight gain and associated problems, especially in horses without adequate exercise. The high calorie and nutrient content, along with potential imbalances in calcium and phosphorus ratios, can contribute to obesity and digestive issues. It is important to carefully consider the individual needs of each horse and adjust their diet accordingly to maintain a healthy weight and overall well-being.