Question: I have had many people tell me to feed my horses alfalfa. Not only is it expensive but I’m afraid they will get hot and stupid on it. Can you give me any advice?
Answer by Marijke van de Water: It looks as good as it tastes-bright green, leafy, rich – and should the horses spot it in your wheelbarrow they’ll abandon good pasture with hooves flying and gobble it like candy. It makes the horse owner feel good. But what about the horse?
There’s no denying that alfalfa is nutritionally dense-protein content is well over 15% (even higher if dairy grade), and it contains very high levels of calcium, magnesium, and other vitamins. Unfortunately, one of the primary drawbacks to alfalfa is its high protein content.
When the body utilizes excess protein for energy it produces urea (consisting of nitrogenous ammonia) which is removed by the kidneys and excreted in the urine. Some of it will also be excreted in the sweat. This is why horses on high alfalfa diets have stalls with strong ammonia fumes (which is irritating to respiratory tissue) and sweat which can be thick and lathery. The horse must drink more water to produce more urine. The kidneys become strained as the tiny filtration tubules begin to get clogged by the excess protein.
Since alfalfa also contains excess calcium, the calcium can accumulate around these clogs forming little nuggets known as kidney stones. Postmortem studies of horses over 15 years old, regardless of the cause of death, found kidney stones in over one-third of those on all-alfalfa diets.
Excess protein is a factor in arthritic conditions as the excess nitrogen converts to uric acid, which is then deposited at the articulation sites of a variety of joints leading to inflammation and soreness. (If you have ever experienced gout you know what uric acid feels like). Not only will alfalfa contribute to joint diseases but can cause epiphysitis in your foal by creating cartilage inflammation interfering with proper bone development.
The fibre content of alfalfa is dangerously low-horses have a much greater need for plenty of high-fibre, slow-eating, chewy grass hay to munch on for proper bowel function and prevention of colic. The equine digestive system is designed to extract most of it’s energy from fibre, not from protein.
The richness of alfalfa leads to many allergy-type reactions, similar to food allergies in people. Skin problems, glandular imbalances, painful joints and muscles, swelling, and fatigue are some of the conditions which can often be ameliorated by eliminating alfalfa from the feeding program.
A rich, high-protein, fairly low energy feed such as alfalfa should be used as a supplement, for broodmares and high-performance horses for example, rather than as a staple. Or feed it to the cows.
If your horse has been exposed to a long-term diet of an overly rich feeding program, I would recommend the Riva’s Remedies Probiotics and Pro-Dygest, to restore intestinal balance and to detoxify the excess protein residue.
Marijke van de Water, B. Sc., DHMS
Equine Health Consultant
Ph. # 1-800-405-6643
Additional reading on hay testing and balanced diets: http://www.horsemansu.com/kathryn_watts_test_hay