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

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

  • January 20, 2019 at 7:40 pm

    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?

    • January 21, 2019 at 8:48 am

      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.

        • January 20, 2020 at 1:51 pm

          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.

  • February 2, 2020 at 6:38 am

    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

    • February 2, 2020 at 7:20 pm

      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.

  • February 26, 2020 at 10:30 am

    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.

    • February 26, 2020 at 9:09 pm

      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)?


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