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The Truth About Soaking Alfalfa Pellets To Avoid Choke In Horses


When it comes to decisions about feeding, horse owners make a lot of decisions based on prevention of common health challenges like colic and choke. Unfortunately, both can plague horses who are prone to either condition, and it’s not always clear how to avoid a recurrence.

So, when a post on Facebook went viral earlier this month about feeding alfalfa pellets as part of a horse’s diet, you can bet horse owners started talking.

“The purpose of this post is to inform those who feed alfalfa pellets in their horses’ diet,” the post reads. “Alfalfa is very important for colic prevention and adds needed nutrients for performance horses…”

The author went on to explain that she had a horse choke the previous week, and wanted to share what she discovered as she feeds her horses. She said that she soaks her horses’ feed every evening as a way to help with hydration, and each horse is fed in a private area to prevent anxiety and fast eating. However, on one occasion, she changed the feeding location for one horse and the horse subsequently choked.

After the choke, the author conducted an experiment to see how long a soak alfalfa pellets needed to fully break down. While the feeding recommendations on the bag stated that the pellets are recommended to be fed wet, soaked in water “(two parts water to one-part pellets) for 30 minutes or until properly softened” her soaking took eight hours before the pellets were fully softened and turned into mush, leading to the suggestion that pellets must be soaked this long to prevent a horse from choking.

The post has reach more than 2,900 shares on Facebook.

Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS, an equine nutritionist, responded to this viral post to shine a light on some of the inaccuracies of the post to help horse owners who might take this information as equine veterinary canon.

First, it’s important to understand what happens when a horse is choking.

“Choke is an obstruction of the esophagus, whether it be from hay, concentrates or a foreign object,” says Janicki. “Choke is a complex condition with many risk factors, but there is zero evidence in the scientific community that feed or hay in itself causes a horse to choke. That being said, feed type and management are an important consideration for horses at risk for choke.”

There are two very important processes that occur when feed enters the horse’s mouth prior to it traveling to the esophagus. First there is chewing, which is mainly performed by the molars. This action starts to break down the feed into smaller particles. Second is when the act of chewing stimulates the production of saliva from salivary glands in the mouth (the horse has three main salivary glands: partoid, mandibular and sublingual). Saliva is composed of more than 99% water, with the rest made up of bicarbonate and electrolytes.

“Saliva’s purpose is to add moisture to the feed, aiding in the digestion process so nutrients can be extracted later in the digestive tract,” Janicki said.

Knowing this, the risk factors for choke start to become clear. Poor condition of teeth, usually with age, is the most common risk factor for choke, and a major reason why equine nutritionists recommend soaking feed for senior horses. Lack of proper dental care can also increase choke risk for mature, non-senior horses. If chewing is painful due to hooks or sharp points, the horse is going to be less likely to chew food properly.

“The age of the horse in the viral post wasn’t published, so this may or may not have been a factor,” Janicki comments. “Previous choke episodes also seem to increase a horse’s risk for choking again.”

A rapid rate of intake into the mouth and swallowing is another risk factor, meaning less chew time and less saliva production. Janicki explains that lots of things can play into rate of consumption of food, which the viral post does highlight. Horses may bolt the feed bucket, meaning they may devour food rapidly in large mouthfuls. Horses fed in a group exist in an environment where the individuals feel they must compete for food (although this may just be perception).

“Observe a group feeding situation and you will notice a whole lot of bucket switching down the hierarchical chain – until the most dominant horse settles on a feed bucket, no one settles,” says Janicki. “Eventually, the herd is satisfied with their position and eats peacefully.”

So, what’s the one thing the horse owner noted that was changed in this horse’s regime? The location of the horse’s feed bucket.

“The original post states that the horses are fed in ‘private spots’, and I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it doesn’t seem to indicate ‘individual stalls’ to me,” says Janicki. “In a group feeding situation, could this small change in location cause distress and change rate of consumption in order to compete for food? Absolutely. Even though it seems to be an insignificant change to us, it’s a change in normal routine.”

“As a nutritionist, I do hear and see many owners blaming the feed for a variety of issues–a drop in weight, colic, choke,” she continues. “My general advice is that if a feeding regime that has been consistent over time suddenly causes an issue like choke, it’s probably not because of the feed (or solely so). Something has changed in the horse’s routine, environment, health, or nutritional requirements that need to be considered and addressed.”

Another point Janicki wants to make sure is corrected is that the original author mentioned that alfalfa prevents colic.

“Alfalfa doesn’t prevent colic,” she says. “Colic is a complex condition and as much as I wish prevention was as easy as feeding something, it’s just not true.”

Colic is used to describe any abdominal pain and has a variety of causes. There is no single preventative for colic, including feeding alfalfa (hay, cubes or pellets), but there are many things horse owners can do to help reduce the risk for colic—including providing adequate fiber in the diet via forage, ideally a minimum of 1.5% body weight per day. Feeding 1.5 pounds of alfalfa pellets to a mature horse at about 1,200 pounds is far from meeting the minimum of 18 pounds of forage per day, but definitely helps add to it-and, as the original author suggests, it does add a source of digestible nutrients to the diet.

The best advice you can get for proper nutrition and feeding practices for your horse is to talk with your equine veterinarian and a licensed equine nutritionist. Remember that not everything on the internet is true, so make sure you do your research and work closely with your care team to provide the best for your horses.

This article was written by Megan Arszman and is reprinted with permission from the Paulick Report.