Feeding Your Horse Alfalfa

Feeding Your Horse Alfalfa

The pros and cons of feeding your horse straight alfalfa hay versus a grass-alfalfa mix.

alfalfa hay bale in field (Credit: Canva)

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What are the pros and cons of feeding my two Quarter Horses straight alfalfa hay instead of a grass-alfalfa mix? Also, is it bad to feed the mix in one feeding and the alfalfa in the second daily feeding? I wonder if it's too hard on the stomach to process the different hay. They are both hard-working horses, but their weight is good.

For the answer to this question, we consulted AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena.


Straight alfalfa will provide more protein, more calcium and perhaps more calories per pound than an alfalfa-grass mix. The extra protein will be used for energy, although not very efficiently, and the excess nitrogen will be excreted by the horse, so urine output will be a little higher with a little more ammonia in the urine. Water intake will need to be a bit higher; horses must have access to adequate water so there is no risk of dehydration.

There has been some concern, particularly on the West Coast, that horses on straight alfalfa hay might be more prone to developing “stones” in their intestinal tract. There are a couple caveats to this: It has been documented fairly well that Thoroughbreds and Arabians are more prone to this than other breeds, and there is also some concern that it may have to do with the sandy ground that many of the West Coast horses eat off of; the sand can actually have implications in the development of stones as well.

Because alfalfa hay contains more calories per pound, you need to feed less to maintain the same body condition. It sounds like you are watching body condition and would adjust the feeding rate according to the body condition. (Learn how to judge body condition here.)

You can feed two types of hay to horses with a few precautions and moderation. It's recommended to mix the hay at each feeding rather than feed one hay at one meal and a different hay at a different meal so that the horse does not have sudden changes. 

If you feed one hay for a long period, the microflora in the gut get accustomed to that hay. You should not switch abruptly, but can blend for four to seven days. Sudden drastic changes in complete portion of hay can be linked to an increased risk of colic.

How Much Hay to Feed a Horse

High-quality hay is an important source of essential nutrients in your horse’s diet. A horse’s protein and energy requirements depend on age, stage of development, metabolism and workload.

A mature horse will eat 2 to 2.5 percent of his body weight daily, and for optimum health, nutritionists recommend that at least half of this should be roughage, such as hay. For a 1,000-pound horse, that means feeding at least 10 pounds of roughage each day.

Types of Hay

Hay generally falls into one of two categories – grasses or legumes. Legume hay, such as alfalfa, is higher in protein, energy, calcium and Vitamin A than grass hay.

While hay alone might not meet the total dietary requirements of young, growing horses or those used for high levels of performance, high-quality hay can supply ample nutrition for less active adult horses.

Once you’ve determined the best category of hay for your horse, most people select hay based on how it looks, smells and feels.

Selecting Quality Hay

Use these tips for identifying quality horse hay. 

Nutrena: What's Inside Counts

Nutrena feed isn’t just grown, it’s crafted. Real science goes into putting the nutrients animals need into each Nutrena® feed product. And quality is so important because we know people are relying on us to stand up to our exacting standards each and every time. What’s inside the bag counts. That’s why you can count on our feeds for the animals you care for.

AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena is one of the world's largest equine nutrition companies, feeding more than one million horses per day. Learn more at www.aqha.com/nutrena.