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Over Feeding Lucerne

Can we blame Lucerne for everything from tying up to navicular disease? Photosensitivity reactions, calcium/phosphorus imbalance, enteroliths and even resistance to resistance in training?

No - but a horse fed on a staple of Lucerne can have many problems.

Overall whilst much of what is written below is debatable; when removed from a straight lucerne diet horses respond very well and many of the symptoms discussed here disappear.

And you thought Lucerne was the perfect feed for your horse. Your horse thought so too. Well, think again! Lucerne might just be among the worst things you can feed your horse, even though your horse looks good, has a shiny coat, and loves every stem of the green, sweet hay. Lucerne is cattle feed intended to fatten animals for slaughter. When feeding lucerne to cattle there is no concern with keeping the animal sound and able to work for twenty years or more.

Lucerne, generally, is 18 to 20 % protein, but can vary from as low as 12% to as high as 40%, and often higher. Itís the high protein which is the culprit. A horseís digestive system has to work extra hard to convert protein to usable energy creating a high body temperature. Thatís the first problem. Not too serious, you say. Of course, not! But it is only the beginning.

Lucerne is also very high in calcium and low in phosphorus. Young horses need a calcium/phosphorous ratio of about l.5 to l. Older horses do nicely on a 2 to l ratio, and can stand up to 5 to l calcium to phosphorus. Lots of lucerne for breakfast and dinner can push those ratios to disastrous proportions if there isnít another feed in the diet to correct the imbalance.

Grain, which is high in phosphorus, low in calcium, is natureís way of balancing the ratio. But lots of horse owners donít want their horses eating a lot of grain, it gives them too much energy, so there is no diet balancing. Excessive calcium creates the first big series of problems

Excessive calcium interferes with the function of the parathyroid gland. When the parathyroid gland thinks there is too much calcium available, it shuts down, which in turn disturbs other functions and leads to "thumps", muscle cramps, and tying up, all of which can have serious consequences. Excessive calcium can also result in hypothyroid horses, which are plump and shiny, but usually cranky, belligerent, resistant to bending and flexing, very lazy and emotionally unstable.

Young horses being conditioned for performance or halter are often plagued by unsoundness, as well as training problems, simply because they are physically and emotionally troubled by thyroid or metabolic imbalances nutritionally induced by lucerne. Lucerne can cause numerous training problems seemingly without solutions. Donít blame your horse or your training techniques without first checking your feeding program.

A calcium/phosphorus imbalance will cause knuckling over and contracted tendons in young horses. Good, rich lucerne will make young horses grow quickly and often end in epiphysitis, a joint condition which can have long lasting ill effects.

High amounts of protein (due to high lucerne feeding) when digested, result in an acid condition within the horse. The horse needs to be slightly alkaline. To buffer the acids in the blood, the horseís body pulls the alkaline minerals from tissue and bone so the heart can continue to function properly. The heart, according to the horseís body, has a higher priority than ligaments and bones. This results in the formation of osselets, spavins and navicular condition.

Kidney problems are common in horses on a high lucerne diet. In an effort to get rid of the excess protein in the diet, there is often frequent urination and possible kidney damage. Kidney stones are often caused by high calcium and high protein in the horseís diet.

Lucerne is the only direct link to stones (enteroliths) found in horses. It is very common for horses in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, states in America which feed a lot of lucerne to have stones. Horses which do not eat Lucerne have a very low incidence of stones.

Photsensitivity is a big problem in Australia, with many horses becoming overly sensitive to exposure to the sun due to their high intake of legumes. Many people incorrectly diagnose mud fever or straight sunburn, but in most cases reducing the horseís access to legume feeds which include both lucerne and clover, sees a remarkable improvement in this condition. It is very important to cut back on lucerne during times of high clover intake to reduce over loading the system with feeds from the legume group.

Finally, studies have shown that horses eating mostly lucerne have a higher incidence of disease than horses on grass hay. In study groups, lucerne fed horses had more severe disease symptoms than horses on grass. When taken off the lucerne, reducing the high amounts of protein, the diseases ended without treatment.

If you are feeding lucerne, in any form, reevaluate your feeding program and consider adding different roughage. The best bulk that you can provide for your horse is free access to grass hay. Just as nature intended.

Your horse likes his lucerne, but he wonít like a calcium/phosphorus imbalance, being hypothyroid, cramping or tying up, having kidney stones or kidney disease, arthritis, osselets, spavins or navicular. He may be unhappy about being taken off lucerne, but he sure might be a happier, healthier horse who loves to train, compete and enjoy extra years of pain-free exercise.

You may not choose to change. Thatís up to you.


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