Ulcers are common in performance horses, and even many non-performance horses suffer from ulcers as well (1,2).
Generally, ulcers are found in the upper region of the equine stomach that doesn’t have much protection from the acidic gastric fluid. Horses are constantly secreting acid into the stomach because they are designed to be grazers, eating small amounts all day.
However, due to management practices, horses are often fed large meals with lots of time in between, which may increase the prevalence of ulcers.
In this article we will focus on the use of alfalfa hay as a management tool for horses with ulcers.
Alfalfa hay characteristics
Alfalfa is well known for its dark green color, sweet smell, and leafy appearance. Alfalfa is a legume (a type of hay) that is commonly fed to horses throughout the country.
Because it is a legume hay, alfalfa tends to contain high protein content and more calcium than grass hay. Additionally, because it is leafier, it tends to be more highly digestible and higher in energy than grass hays (3).
Horses benefit from alfalfa hay
Alfalfa has become popular for the management of gastric ulcers. Alfalfa’s high calcium content is responsible for its potential protective qualities; the high levels of calcium act to buffer the stomach acid and prevent damage to the stomach lining.
Feeding alfalfa an hour or two before exercise can help buffer the stomach acid and provide a barrier to prevent splashing of the acid into the upper region of the equine stomach (4).
If you choose to feed alfalfa hay as a management technique for horse ulcers, it is important to be aware of one potential hazard with alfalfa: Blister beetles. These small beetles can be deadly to a horse if ingested.
To reduce the chance of blister beetle contamination, and for convenience purposes, many horse owners choose to feed alfalfa pellets or cubes.
The use of alfalfa pellets for horses
Alfalfa pellets and cubes are usually easy to find at your local feed store and can make it easier and potentially less expensive to feed this legume forage. Additionally, soaking these forms of hay before feeding them can help to keep your horse hydrated.
However, there may be some drawbacks to these processed feeds. Long-stem forage is an important part of a horse’s diet and processing them into shorter pieces can mean that they do not have the same health benefit for the gut.
Now, that doesn’t mean they are bad for horses but, in order to promote a healthy gut, you shouldn’t replace all of their forage with pellets or cubes.
Overall, alfalfa can be a part of a healthy horse management plan to combat gastric ulcers. However, if you suspect that your horse has ulcers or another gastric problem, it is important to visit with your veterinarian and determine the best treatment plan to restore a healthy and happy digestive tract and provide the gut-supportive nutrients that your horse may be lacking.