Grass hay vs alfalfa for older hard keeper?

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Grass hay vs alfalfa for older hard keeper?

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    05-06-2010, 06:21 PM
Grass hay vs alfalfa for older hard keeper?

I'm being given an older underweight thoroughbred. He's supposed to be here Monday .

He is currently on Alfalfa hay and senior feed. I've read info that goes both ways about the kind of hay to keep him on. I know to make any changes gradually, but I'm not sure how much of a change I need to make.

I've read both that the higher protein in alfalfa is important for an older horse, and that the higher protein is harder for an older horses system to process .

I'm planning to add beet pulp to his diet, and use that as a chance to add any supplements he may need, but I wanted opinions on what hays others have used that have worked for them.

I figure long term I'll likely end up using an alfalfa/bermuda mix, finding the middle ground that way.

Any ideas?
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    05-06-2010, 09:41 PM

Alfalfa/lucerne is generally a very good feed. It is very low in sugar, so a good choice for lami-prone horses. High in protein, but it is a much easier to digest protein than what they get from grain or such, so a good choice for oldies who's guts aren't so good at processing protein any more. The fibre is also easier to digest than regular hay or chaff, so also good for oldies or horses with teeth probs.

Lucerne is also high in potassium, so it's important to ensure their diet is well balanced, and it isn't fed as the sole roughage source - lucerne chaff mixed half & half with grass hay or oaten chaff is generally a good ratio for many horses. If you want to put weight on him, ensure he's getting at least 3% of his bodyweight daily in roughage. It is also a good fattener, so it is not necessarily the best for 'easy keepers' & overweight horses.

If the 'senior feed' is grain based or otherwise high in starch or sugar, particularly if the horse is not fed little & often - only fed 2-3 larger feeds per day say - this could be the reason he's a 'hard keeper' as horse's systems are not evolved to cope well with starch & large infrequent feeds. Also teeth could be an issue and he should be attended by a *good* equine dentist at least yearly, but may need more frequent as he gets older.

Balanced nutrition is also important and it may be that he's getting enough calories, but imbalance or deficiency in certain nutrients is keeping him from doing well. I use a service called to help me balance diets and to have an equine nutritionist 'on call'. I find it invaluable and very economical.
    05-06-2010, 09:58 PM
I would like to know the qty they have been feeding him. Most do not give much hay in general so he really may not be a hard keeper just not getting a normal ration for a horse that type and size.
    05-07-2010, 01:22 AM
He came to the current owners skinny in August. He had been abandoned after a foreclosure and the neighbor of the foreclosure fed him subsistence feed for a while before finding someone to haul him to a new home.

I was told by the current owners that they noticed he wasn't gaining weight and only realized maybe a month or two ago that he was being bullied out of his fair share of the hay by their other horses. Since that point they have separated the horses and feed him two flakes alfalfa in the morning and two flakes in the evening with a scoop of senior feed.

They also told me they know he needs his teeth floated but haven't gotten it done .

So you both may be right. Once he's here and I get his teeth done, and he gets more frequent meals, he may fatten right up. Here's hoping .
    05-13-2010, 01:01 AM
Alfalfa hay is very hard on an older horse's kidneys. I have seen a horse die slowly from kidney failure because the owner insisted that the horse was too skinny and needed alfalfa hay to keep weight on.
The first sign is the amount they pee. If your older horse is peeing a lot, then his kidneys are very susceptible to stress and you're going to want to cut out all sugary/startchy feeds. (And yes alfalafa hay is sugary)
What I personally would be feeding an older horse is free choice grass hay, soaked grass hay cubes twice a day and free choice minerals and water. As the horse needs more calories I would add in beet pulp and/or rice bran and/or a high fat, low protein based mineral ration, like Hoffman's ration.

Good luck!
    05-13-2010, 03:37 AM
The Horse | Saving Survivors ->feeding starved horse - good advice for underweights too
The Horse | Senior Horse Nutrition -> feeding the senior horse
The Horse | Feed Needs of Older Horses --> "Feed Needs of Older Horses"

These articles can all be found on, which started out as a site for equine vets, but which the public can now access. You have to register for an account to read the last article, but I think it's free now.

@anebel, I know that kidney failure occurs when a horse that has been starved (from lack of feed or failure to absorb nutrients) is suddenly fed a large amount of alfalfa. I'd never heard that alfalfa could do that to one who was just underweight. How skinny was this horse? I am curious, because I feed alfalfa.
    05-13-2010, 10:56 AM
[QUOTE=~*~anebel~*~;631919](And yes alfalafa hay is sugary)
What I personally would be feeding an older horse is free choice grass hay, soaked grass hay cubes twice

Blanket statements of useless information based on no facts are just that - Useless!

Sugar content is based on plant maturity, stage of harvest, time of day plant was harvested at, plant stress, etc. It is not a reflection of legume or non legume - ie. Alfalfa or any random grass! I have plenty of forage tests in my drawer that show alfalfa with low sugar levels and plenty of tests that show grass hay with high sugar levels. A FORAGE TEST DETERMINES THE SUGAR LEVEL PRESENT Your suspicions do not determine the sugar level present.
Feed an older horse free choice grass hay that has an rfv of 75 and you can watch the weight come off. Feed ann older horse a grass hay with a rfv of 125 and he will do very well. Limit feed an older horse some alfalfa with a rfv of 190 along with some nice 100 rfv grass and you will have something!
    05-14-2010, 09:33 PM
Originally Posted by ~*~anebel~*~    
Alfalfa hay is very hard on an older horse's kidneys. ..... (And yes alfalafa hay is sugary)
What I personally would be feeding an older horse is free choice grass hay, ......if the horse needs more calories I would add in beet pulp and/or rice bran
Hmm, sounds like a guess of the causes of one sick horse to me. Have you got any evidence of your assumptions? Vet's reports, for starters? I guess the kidney probs, **if** they were indeed anything to do with the lucerne may have been due to sudden & excessive protein or some other nutrient. While it's a generally good feed, I wouldn't feed it as the sole forage. As with anything, it needs to be balanced. It is high in protein, which is easier to digest than many forms, along with high in many minerals & vitamins. But I actually thought it was *generally*(depends on weather, time cut, etc, etc) quite low in sugar - lower than grass hay generally.

Older horses may have tooth problems that mean they may have trouble with long stem forage like grass hay & if lami prone, the hay may need to be soaked, to reduce sugar. Beet pulp is predominantly fibre too, and it is often very high in sugar, depending on the type & brand, so be careful with your advice & feeding your own. Not sure about it's energy content, but I would think it goes hand in hand with sugar content, so I think it's not good for adding condition.
As I'm not 100% on these things, I've asked my nutritionist, so I'll get back to you on those factors.

Edited to add... And got the answer from nutritionist already....

If a horse has problems with its kidneys then yes, the high calcium and protein in the lucerne is not great for them. Doesn't mean you can't feed lucerne, just that you have to be very careful how much you feed and that you aren't exceeding calcium and protein requirements. Its also not a great idea to feed older horses really high protein or calcium diets as it is just another thing their aging organs need to deal with. The easier you can make it for them the better.

Re the sugar level that is misinformation. According to the Equi-Analytical database, lucerne has less than 2% starch (average of 314 samples) and around 8% water soluble carbohydrate (average of 248 samples), so a total non-structural carbohydrate level of less than 10%, which compared to some grass and oaten hays is very low."


"Sugar beet pulp is indeed extremely variable in sugar content. It depends on processing and also whether it has molasses and other additives. Low sugar varieties are good for adding fibre to horses whose diets are deficient and they don't get enough hay/chaff for one reason or another. As you appreciate the problems with high sugar/starch diets, I don't need to tell you that the other varieties are not the best for conditioning horses."
    05-15-2010, 06:28 PM
Would it make a difference if it turned out the horse was closer to 17 than 22? (Vet looked at him Wednesday, and aged him at about 17), and his teeth are in good shape?

One of my biggest problem out here in Arizona is getting "good quality grass hay". I picked up a bale of Bermuda today to start shifting that into his diet some - but it didn't look all that great. I'm going to try a different feed store next week and see if theirs looks any better.

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