Feed alfalfa/mix= yes/no? old thoroughbred

My thoroughbred is almost 31 years old, and do not ride him anymore. Blood work showed he needed lower sugar in his diet. I’ve added high fat (with supplements - which he likes very much), but am puzzled (i.e. frustrated…) with finding leafy grass hay which he will eat. Well-soaked hay is firmly rejected. My patience has led to him losing weight and being generally miserable when fed. Whenever I add some alfalfa (in New Mexico 3rd cutting for the winter months is available), he eats everything. At his age, how do I balance my choices: 1) what I should feed him vs. 2) what improves his weight/attitude/general contentment? (There is no pasture turnout in our area - another big disadvantage). I’m tending to choose his happiness and perhaps less time in his future over what I “should” be doing for him…all ideas are welcome.


am new to forum…forgot to add my name in the post re my 31 yr old thoroughbred:
Pat Elena Wood//New Mexico

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Dear Pat: I’m with you, dear, as regards favoring your horse’s comfort over hoping that food he does not like or cannot eat will extend his life. He has already long out-lived the average for his breed, and indeed, he has lived longer at 31 years than 90% of horses of any breed. He deserves his pleasures, and since as you say there is no turnout and therefore he cannot graze, what shows up in his hay net and feed bucket are among the strongest pleasures remaining to him (the others being your companionship and that of any buddies or herdmates or barn-mates he may have).

As to his rejecting soaked hay: at 31 years of age, it is unlikely that he has many teeth that still occlude, if any. It would be normal for a horse of that age to have lost several of his grinders, and to have worn any that remain down to stumps. In some horses, the stumps become welded into the jawbone by a process of cementum over-deposition; this can be quite thick and completely surrounds the worn-out tooth like a pig-in-a-blanket. But because cementum is softer than normal tooth material, it can also wear into razor-sharp edges. So for all these reasons, it is imperative that you make contact with a veterinarian who is good at equine dentistry, or a lay dentist who practices ethically and in cooperation with a veterinarian. Your old guy needs his teeth seen at least once every 6 months, to remove any loose teeth and to rasp down or grind off any sharp edges that may have developed in the cementum. This is fairly frequent but necessary because at his age, both loose teeth and sharp edges develop faster than they would in a younger horse.

Of course if he has trouble chewing, or if sharp edges are lacerating his tongue or cheeks, he will not want to eat. But there is another factor to be considered too – he may not be even able to eat grass hay, soaked or not. The longest stem or leaf of grass that it is safe for any horse to swallow would measure about 5/8ths of an inch. A young horse with normal functional dentition will grind feedstuffs down until 90% or more of the particles in the bolus he swallows are the size of grains of cornmeal – i.e. about 1/8th inch long. Your old guy absolutely cannot do this, so it is actually dangerous to feed him grass hay, because if he swallows long strands because he cannot reduce them, his chances of an obstructive colic are greatly increased.

And this is also why he prefers the alfalfa. Without even being there, I can tell you that he does not eat the stems of the alfalfa. He may take them into his mouth, but that’s only to suck out the sweet juice. He cannot chew the stems, so like all wise old horses, he will suck on a wad of alfalfa stems for a while and then spit it out. The wads of spat-out hay are called “quids” and you will find them as little hay-balls blowing all over the floor of the stall or pen. What he does eat of the alfalfa is the leaf, which has a great deal of carbohydrates and much of the nutritional value also in terms of vitamins and minerals. This he eats eagerly and will even fatten on it, because he can take the leaves into his mouth and they practically just melt in the saliva, requiring little or no chewing and not being dangerous to his innards in any way.

If you watch your guy as he “processes” a flake of alfalfa hay, you’ll see him do one or more behaviors that, superficially, look like quirky behaviors but which are actually a sign of how smart horses all are. Because his first task whenever you deliver him some alfalfa is to sort or winnow the leaves from the stems. This he will do either by dunking the hay in his water tank or bucket (some horses eat their entire meal with their nose underwater, because they can use the mouthful of water to float their cheeks away from sharp points). If he isn’t a “dunker” then he will be a “hay shaker”, grabbing a big chunk of hay and then shaking it as if he’s playing with it or angry at it. Some horses first break the flake up and then stick their head down into the center of it and then shake their head up and down and from side to side, all to the purpose of knocking the leaves off the stems. They then “vacuum” their stall or the dirt in their outdoor pen, and you know (I am sure) from previous observation how good they are at vacuuming up every single last tiny leaf. When they’re done with that, they spend long hours sucking on the stems and then quidding them out but trying not to swallow them.

So now that you have learned this, I want to add that there is a solution that will handle your concerns about him getting proper nutrition and not too much sugar in the diet. There is a product sold in the West under the brand name “LMF” which is manufactured by the A.L. Gilbert feed company of Modesto, California. Look for the low-carbohydrate mix in the lime-green bag. What this product consists of is grass hay (plus a little alfalfa, beet pulp and added vitamins and minerals) that has been run through a hammer mill. The hammer mill does for the old horse what its teeth are no longer capable of doing: it beats the grass hay into tiny particles the size of cornmeal, so you are essentially feeding your horse hay that has been “pre-chewed”. I have used this product and very pleased with the results; it allowed my 38-year-old half-Arab mare high quality of life and normal weight maintenance right up to the day when she died of a catastrophic heart attack. And ditto my two geldings who lived to be 26 and 29, respectively. The product is a pelleted hay and I like this particular brand because it uses very little of either molasses or wax as a “binder” to keep the pellets from powdering due to the vibration of the delivery truck. They sell a “senior” feed (in the yellow bag, I think) but I never used that because it has too much sugar, being designed to try to put weight on an old horse. The green bag is the low-carb stuff and I would guess that’s what you need (although you should also talk to your vet about this and read the labels showing contents on both bags carefully before deciding). You would then feed the pelleted bag feed along with alfalfa, observing carefully to see that the horse eats it (mine loved it).

I hope you find this information both thought-provoking and helpful. Best wishes – Dr. Deb


Dear Dr. Deb: Thank you for the time and consideration you’ve given to my question. I will follow up on what you recommend, starting with a dental check. Especially helpful are your
detailed descriptive observations of eating behaviours - many of which I started to see - though did not understand - about a month ago while my horse was (trying) to eat. I’ll also see about finding the LMF for him. With gratitude, PatElena

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Follow up on my 30 yr old thoroughbred: his dental appointment showed no problems - simply well worn down teeth. His manure does have a high content of undigested stems which I learned is a clear sign that he’s eating leaves and I can make the change to pelleted feed more quickly. Here in New Mexico I cannot get the LMF brand of feed. But there is available a good selection of senior feeds & several high quality grass and alfalfa pelleted feeds available that I can combine with the senior feed so that I can eliminate all grass hay and decrease alfalfa hay. Going in to the winter months he needs to gain about a hundred pounds. All in all he’s pretty happy with the changes in his feed and still able to enjoy his horse buddies and our hand walks together. Thank you, Dr. Deb