How To Soak & Feed Alfalfa, Timothy or Grass Pellets

By Mary Walby

I first began feeding soaked hay pellets when I received a senior horse for rehab who suffered from chronic diarrhea. The equine dentist told me that his teeth were completely worn out and incapable of chewing hay. I told him about the diarrhea, and he said, “If large unchewed pieces of hay get all the way to the colon, they can irritate it and cause the diarrhea.” I was thrilled. Perhaps all I had to do was remove the hay from his diet, find something else to feed, and maybe the diarrhea would disappear?

Being a traditional western vet, in addition to a cutting edge equine dentist, he recommended going to a senior horse complete feed instead of hay. But I had already been through all the grain issues with another horse, and all the damage it did to his gut. There was no way I was going to feed grain to this horse. Thankfully, I had a holistic vet to consult with, and she recommended feeding hay pellets or cubes, weighed and fed in the same amount you would weigh hay.

For variety in the diet, I found timothy and orchard grass pellets, and then a few pounds of alfalfa pellets for protein. He maintained his weight on pasture and 1% of his body weight in pellets in the growing season, and then 1.5% of his body weight in pellets in the winter. It cost more than feeding hay, but I knew he’d be healthier for it, and that was the whole point. The bonus was that I had no more vet bills after that!

Within two weeks of his new diet, the diarrhea was gone, never to return.

How to soak & feed pellets

When feeding hay pellets, I do a ratio of 2:1, cold water to pellets. This works for alfalfa, timothy, or orchard grass pellets. Alfalfa pellets tend to be a bit drier (depending on the weather when and where they were made) so I soak them for 5 hours to get them to completely break down.

I have had two choking incidences with two different senior horses on hay pellets. One time was completely dry pellets and required veterinary intervention. The other time was on pellets soaked for 20 minutes. That horse worked it out himself over half an hour, but after that I just decided to soak until they are completely broken down, and I haven’t had a choking incident since then.

When soaking in the summer, I put them in a cool place out of the sun and then feed after 5 hours, but I always check the smell to make sure it hasn’t started to ferment. On a hot summer day, I have had them ferment after 8 hours, so I don’t feed that batch if that happens.

In the winter, when it’s cold, I can soak the pellets overnight outside, or in an unheated garage. The pellets can still be okay after 12 hours, if it’s cold enough. However, my preference, when possible, whether hot or cold weather, is to feed them after 5 hours of soaking.

The only downside is that in very cold weather, like 10-15 degrees Farenheit, the pellets will refreeze after about 20-30 minutes of being in a feed bucket. So for my horse that was on the hay pellet diet, he couldn’t finish before they started to freeze again. So I fed in smaller amounts, keeping the pellets in an insulated bucket and only handing out what he could eat in 20 minutes. Thankfully it’s only that cold 1-2 weeks per year, where I live.

On a rare occasion, if I don’t have 5 hours, I can get away with soaking for 3 hours, however, the pellets are partially broken down, but not all the way, and the alfalfa pellets are less broken down than the grass hay pellets, so I stay and watch the horses eat. I haven’t had a problem so far, but then I rarely do that.

If you have any further questions, just leave them in the Comments section below 🙂

Mary Walby began rehabbing senior horses by accident over 10 years ago at the same time she started training in the martial art of Aikido to learn how to fall off a horse. Little did she realize that the essence of Aikido would permeate every aspect of her life and make it better, from performing and teaching piano, to rehabbing senior horses. She recently founded God’s Window Senior Horse Rehab and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization committed to promoting the health and welfare of all senior horses from a holistic perspective.

How To Soak & Feed Alfalfa, Timothy or Grass Pellets

15 thoughts on “How To Soak & Feed Alfalfa, Timothy or Grass Pellets

  • January 20, 2019 at 7:40 pm
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    2:1 ratio? Can you spell that out for me. 🙂 2 cans water one can pellets or the other way around. Also, is your mixture mushy or just moist when done?

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    • January 21, 2019 at 8:48 am
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      Hi Cindy, Thank you for the question. Yes, water is double the amount of pellets. So if I’m feeding 2 cups of pellets, I soak them in 4 cups of water. When I do this the mixture is moist and completely broken down after a minimum of 5 hours of soaking, but it is not mushy. I stay away from making it mushy because it’s messy and the my horses don’t lick it clean when it’s mush.

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        • January 20, 2020 at 1:51 pm
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          Yes, I have done that to speed things up on occasion, but I stay and monitor how far broken down they are and how warm they are. As soon as they are broken down I would feed them. What I don’t want to have happen is them to start fermenting. That’s the big thing I’m monitoring for, and if anything is ever questionable, I don’t feed it. It’s cheaper to skip a feeding than to have a vet call for colic. Good luck.

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  • February 2, 2020 at 6:38 am
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    Hello Mary,
    I am so glad I found your article!! I too feel the same about everything you said. Right now, my 32 year old rescued Mustang was on a senior feed and twice a day, I would soak timothy pellets for him too. Well now he isn’t eating his senior feed as much so I am going to increase the pellets and get him off the senior since he doesn’t eat it all and the birds end up flocking to it. So maybe he doesn’t eat them all because the birds have gone potty in them. I have warm water in my tack room, so I can get my pellets dissolved in 5 to 10 minutes. We just got a hot water tank in there and it’s been a lifesaver! But if my horse is going on pellets only, along with a good supplement, so do I weigh the pellets like I would hay? I’m not quite sure how much he should get. I do feed throughout the day. Thank you for your help and I’m so glad I found your article! Keep on keepin’ on! Your horses are lucky to have you! God bless you!! “In His hands is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:10

    Reply
    • February 2, 2020 at 7:20 pm
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      Hi Linda,

      Thank you! I’m glad it’s helpful. I weigh the pellets dry. I have a scoop that’s about 4 cups and when I weigh it on the scale it weighs 1 lb. (However, my alfalfa pellets are much firmer and 3 cups of them weigh 1 lb. So I weigh everything, even a new bag of pellets because there can be variation).

      Then I add my water in the ratio of 2:1 (water to pellets). How much does your horse weigh? And do you know how many pounds of hay per day he would eat to maintain his weight back when he could eat hay? Does he have access to pasture? If so, you won’t necessarily need to replace the whole diet with pellets.

      If I have a 1000 lb horse, then I would start with 10 lbs of pellets per day and go up to 20 lbs. which is 1-2% of the horse’s body weight. With the horse in my example above, he ate 10 lbs of pellets with pasture during the growing season and then in winter I increased it to 15 lbs. How did I know that was adequate? He maintained his weight well. If he didn’t, I would have increased the amount of pellets.

      When I’m feeding that many pellets, I prefer to have multiple feedings per day, usually not more than about 3 lbs per feeding because the stomach is not that big and will empty even if digestion is not yet complete just to make room for the additional food coming in. The horse above self-monitored his intake, so even if I fed him 5 lbs in one feeding, he would leave some of them after a while and go take a nap, then come back later and finish them.

      I had one horse that loved his pellets so much, he would not self-monitor his intake and would keep eating well beyond 3 lbs. Too much food or too much water too fast can cause gas, which I found out the hard way. So for this horse, I limited him to 3 lbs. every few hours. Then over the course of a day he’d eat 12-15 lbs. and he was maintaining his weight at that quantity. He was able to eat some hay and had pasture, so he was probably eating a total of 20 lbs in forage per day (hay, pasture, pellets). He weighted about 1100 lbs. I knew from past years of when he could eat a full hay diet, in winter he could maintain his weight on 20 lbs. of hay per day. I also found that this horse preferred his pellets cold. If they were warm, he would turn his nose up at them. However, all horses are different, so just see what your horse likes.

      In general, I’m not a fan of abrupt feed changes, but I have done it when taking a horse off of grain (because the grain was doing damage) and also with the horse who had diarrhea because the hay was causing damage. So I really observe and follow my gut and listen to the horse when I make the change. Small, frequent meals are preferable to large ones as you are probably already familiar.

      Good luck finding what works for your horse. And thank you for this: God bless you!! “In His hands is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:10. It really made my day.

      Reply
  • February 26, 2020 at 10:30 am
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    Can it be soaked in the refrigerator overnight in warm weather?

    Are Timothy pellets and orchard grass just as good as timothy, and would you soak it the same way?

    Here, wintertime, and my daughter’s senior horse is looking thin. I drink hot tea, and I am heating water in my coffee maker for my tea and the pellets, not boiling, but tiny bubbles. (I don’t like my tea too hot.)

    I have been measuring the alfalfa but not the water… 6 cups of alfalfa, and remaining water up to a certain mark on the pot, after my tea water is poured.

    It soaks for maybe 5 minutes. The pellets are soft but formed, and it’s still pretty warm when I carry it out.

    (I stick my finger all the way down into it to make sure it’s not too warm before i give it to him.) I figure if it’s a pleasant drinking temperature for me , it should be ok for the horse.

    He seems to really enjoy the warm food. It does get a bit mushy at the bottom, but I spoon it up for him, and he gobbles it right down.

    I guess this summer I’ll have to go with cold water.

    Reply
    • February 26, 2020 at 9:09 pm
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      Glad you found a system that works for your horse. My horse dislikes warm food, but I’ve known other horses who don’t mind. It sounds like your horse loves it.

      Yes, soaking hay pellets in the refrigerator overnight works great. What I like about that, is that I don’t have to worry about the soaked pellets fermenting in the heat of summer

      I have fed both soaked timothy pellets and soaked orchard grass pellets for variety in the diet. They tend to break down more quickly than the alfalfa pellets. Yes, I soak them in the same way I soak the alfalfa pellets. (Is that what you were asking)?

      Reply
  • March 29, 2020 at 12:02 am
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    Hi, thank you for the article. I have just recently started feeding timothy/alfalfa pellets because my horse has no front teeth so he is unable to graze. His vet recommended chopped hay but he would not eat that. I tried the pellets and he seems to really like them. I am just wondering what you feed them in. I am currently feeding them in his regular hanging feed bucket but I find the soaked hay gets packed in the corners of the bucket and he cant get seem to get about 1/3 of the hay out of the bucket. I wonder if I feed it in a large bowl on the ground if it will help keep the hay from packing in.

    My poor baby has lost so much weight he looks like a skeleton. He is 30 years old and has been battling diarrhea for a while now. His eating habits are sporadic. He used to be a great eater but over the last 2 years he is very difficult. I had him on senior feed for years and one day he just decided he wasnt going to eat it anymore. He literally started to starve himself, he just wouldn’t eat. That is when I called the vet out. She did a thorough physical and found nothing wrong. I found he would would eat just a tiny amount of chopped hay for a while then he decided to stop that too. He would only eat his cookies which were grains and molasses. I decided to put him back on sweet feed just to see what happened. He ate like he was 8 years old again and gained all of his weight back. I was thrilled. Then about a month or so ago he became finicky of his sweet feed and has nearly stopped eating that as well. I currently feed 2 scoops of sweet feed and two scoops of timothy/alfalfa cubes. The amount he eats of it varies greatly day by day. Sometimes he eats almost nothing and sometimes he eats all but what is packed in too hard to eat. The last two nights I had put the pellets in with a 4-1 ratio of water and gave it to him right away. He seems to love that and ate it all because the pellets never got packed in the corners. I found hear him taking turns s dringing the water and then eating the pellets. Now after reading your article I am concerned that is a dangerous way to feed which is sad because it worked for him. So long g story short, do you think the large ground bowl would work better? I am hesitant to do it because he has a tendency to step on it and flip it over :-(. If you have any tips about a finicky old horse that would rather starve to death than eat certain things gs I would love to hear any advice you may have. I just ordered some supplements, I think it was called Biosponge, for his diarrhea and I am really hoping that along with getting more roughage in him will help with the digestive issues.

    Thanks so much.

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    • March 30, 2020 at 3:51 pm
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      Hi Beth, Thank you for your questions. I feed soaked hay pellets on the ground in a big wide feed dish at least 1 1/2 feet in diameter (or even larger) that way the horse doesn’t have to work hard and no pellets get stuck anywhere. I have not had a horse step in it other than maybe when he’s done. You might experiment with how much you feed at a time to prevent any stepping in the dish. I like to keep it 3 lbs or less per feeding simply because the stomach isn’t that big.

      I have known people who have made the pellets even soupier than I have, and it has worked well for their horses. No matter how I feed the pellets my preference is to feed them on the ground so the horse’s head and neck is in a more natural grazing position and the sinuses can drain. However, find what works best in your situation.

      I’m glad you found a way that works for you, but I’m not clear on what was dangerous about it?

      In terms of weight gain for a senior, I like to weigh hay and weigh pellets and monitor how many pounds the horse is actually eating each day. Sometimes the weight loss is simply because they are not eating enough to maintain weight. 1 1/2 to 2% of the body weight in forage (that’s 15-20 lbs. per day for a 1000 lb horse) is a starting point.

      The diarrhea can complicate things further in that he may be eating, but not able to digest well to be able to use the nutrients. I have found that diarrhea often is caused by something in the diet the horse can not digest. Is he still eating hay? Does he quid hay? If so, that could definitely cause diarrhea. Removing all hay would let you know if it’s the cause.

      Regarding sweet feed, I tend to shy away from feeding it, however, I completely understand if that’s the only thing he’ll eat. The one time I did use sweet feed for the short-term was with a horse who wouldn’t eat her supplements (all herb/plant based), but she’d lick up the sugar coated sweet feed. I was disappointed to say the least, but oh well. It turns out that she had an infection and that was altering her taste buds. Once I put her on antibiotics for the infection she ate all of her herbs/supplements with no problem, and I stopped with the sweet feed. Did the vet do blood work on your horse? That might rule some things out for you.

      Another long-shot, and probably not related, but I will mention it since your horse is a senior. Hopefully this will be a long way off, but I always keep in mind with seniors that when their body is preparing to die they will stop eating anywhere from 1-5 days in advance of death. Stopping drinking can also occur, and when that happens, death is about 2 days away. Neither of these things are painful, it’s just the body putting all it’s energy toward dying and not toward sustaining the body in living. When either of these things happen for days at a time, that is the active dying process, which is completely normal.

      Many times with seniors who aren’t 100% they will intermittently stop eating, may be just for 1 day and then resume, or they’ll eat a little to keep living, but not a lot. When they are doing this, they are not actively dying. It sounds like your horse is in this spot, and that becomes the challenge of finding what food works for him. Sometimes the intermittent stopping eating can be the result of something else going on in the body. Sometimes vets are able to figure it out and treat it and sometimes not.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      Reply
      • May 25, 2020 at 9:01 pm
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        So happy to find this site. I need to gather my info. & questions for another time. Just happy to find after such a long search. Thanks!

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  • April 10, 2020 at 6:38 am
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    We feed my daughter’s pony alfalfa and Timothy hay pellets soaked. The pony loves them soupy. I find sometimes she’s not that interested if not soupy enough so I would say some owners will need to work to find the right consistency to make their horse happy.
    I’m curious about the amount of feed. My daughter’s pony was having trouble maintaining weight so we put on senior grain (soaked) but then happily put on a little too much weight. She’s up to about 850lbs now. We’re supposed to have her losing weight and currently feeding 3lbs alfalfa Timothy pellets mixture am/pm and a flake of Timothy hay in the afternoon to keep her busy. She also gets a 1/2 cup sweet feed and 3/4 cup grain with her supplements to get her to eat them. She’s boarded in a pen without turnout but my daughter exercises her 7 days a week including gaming lessons and events. Her weight has come down some but not as much as the vet would like. Is it safe to go lower than the 6lbs of pellets she’s getting now?

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    • April 10, 2020 at 2:00 pm
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      Hi April,

      Thank you for your comments and questions. Yes, I agree, finding the consistency each horse likes for the pellets is key. That’s wonderful that your pony loves the soup.

      If it’s possible to eliminate the sweet feed and grain, I wouldn’t be surprised if she lost weight easily. I have used soaked alfalfa pellets as a carrier to feed supplements instead of grain. I’ve used anywhere from 1 cup or more depending how much is needed to hide the taste of the supplements. Since she loves her soup, you could also try adding the supplements into her soup.

      If she were off grain, then the question becomes how much forage (hay/pellets) does she need to maintain her weight. Determine her optimal weight and then feed 1 1/2 – 2 % of her optimal weight in forage daily. If her ideal weight was 800 lbs. then 1 1/2% of that would be 12 lbs. of forage per day. I would weigh the pellets dry and weigh the hay and made sure it equaled 12 lbs. If she starts to lose too much weight on 12 lbs a day then I would increase the number of pounds per day. Or, if she’s still overweight on 12 lbs. a day then I would decrease the number of pounds of forage per day. This is just an example. It sounds like she might be able to maintain her weight on less.

      I wonder if you went back to how you were feeding her just before you added the senior grain and she gained too much, if you just added an additional feeding of soaked pellets to increase the total pounds of forage per day, you might find the magic number of pounds she needs per day to maintain weight. Hope that helps. Good luck!

      Reply
  • June 8, 2020 at 9:39 am
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    Hello, so glad to find this site. I just obtained a very skinny adoptee TB. Age 20ish. I’m splitting his Timothy and alfalfa soaked pellets plus 1 lb per day Amplify pellets and about 2lbs per day sweet feed (just to encourage consumption of pellet mush and AMplify). Split into 3 feedings per day this week as I’m working from home. I have excellent grass hay that he does eat (lightly) without quidding and spitting out. For the bony TB, am I safe feeding 1% body weight in well soaked pellets?

    I am a hay pellet believer as it has turned my unthrifty old BLM mustang into a fat shiny boy who looks years younger now. He does get 2lbs amplify pellets also….

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    • June 8, 2020 at 3:16 pm
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      Thank you for your question. When I look at horses needing approx. 1 1/2 -2% of their ideal body weight in forage per day, I count up everything they are eating: hay, pellets, pasture, etc. It sounds like he might actually be in that range from everything you describe about what he is eating.

      If the horse is not maintaining his weight on that amount of pellets, then I increase it until the horse is maintaining his weight. From what you describe above, if he has access to hay to nibble on all the time to keep digestion flowing well, and is maintaining his weight, I wouldn’t be concerned.

      In terms of the actual feeding of pellets, I never feed more than 3 lbs. (to a 1000 lb. horse) at one time just because the stomach isn’t that big and can cause other problems.

      Since horses have a fiber requirement, but not a grain requirement, I’m wondering if you could consider weaning him off grain and replacing it with grass hay pellets (and a ration balancer for vitamins/minerals). Overall he will be healthier, not just his external looks but internally as well. An added bonus is that hay pellets are cheaper than grain.

      However, if you have a picky eater or other constraints, then the bottom line is I find what works for each horse. Sounds like you have some lovely horses that are lucky to have found you. Good luck.

      Reply

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