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Equine Nutrition: Best Practices for Feeding Horses Hay

Last updated: August 24, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

As a horse owner, I know firsthand how important it is to feed my racehorses properly. Recently, while chatting with some other owners at the barn, we got on the topic of feeding hay. “I never knew there was so much to consider when choosing hay,” a new horse owner commented. “It can be overwhelming,” I told him.

We went on to discuss the nutritional value of different types of hay, the importance of portion sizes and feeding frequency, and the best practices for storing and handling hay. We even talked about some common mistakes we’d made in the past when feeding our horses.

It was clear that there was a lot of knowledge and experience in the group, but we all agreed that we could benefit from learning more about the best strategies for feeding horses hay for optimal health. So, I did some research.

In this blog post, I cover everything you need to know about feeding horses hay, including insights from equine research, strategies for choosing the right hay for your horse, and best practices for feeding hay to promote optimal health. Let’s get started.

Why Hay is Essential for Optimal Horse Health

Forage is an essential component of a horse’s diet. As herbivores, horses rely on a steady supply of forage to provide the fiber, vitamins, and minerals they need to maintain optimal health. This can include grass, hay, and other vegetation that horses can eat.

For horses that do not have access to pasture or when grass is unavailable, hay is the most commonly used type of forage. Hay provides a convenient and consistent source of nutrition that can be stored and fed throughout the year.

However, choosing and feeding hay properly is essential to ensure horses receive the nutrients they need and avoid health problems. In addition to its nutritional value, hay can also help keep horses healthy in other ways.

For example, high-quality hay can help prevent colic, a digestive disorder that is a common cause of illness and even death in horses. Forage also plays a role in maintaining healthy teeth and preventing behavioral problems, such as cribbing and wood-chewing.

Given the importance of hay in a horse’s diet, it’s essential that horse owners understand how to choose and feed it correctly. In the following sections, we’ll cover the nutritional value of different types of hay, along with best practices and common mistakes to avoid when feeding horses.

horse hay 1

Understanding Hay Nutrition for Horses

Hay is an important source of nutrition for horses, providing them with fiber, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that are essential for their overall health and well-being. To understand the nutritional value of hay, it’s important to first understand the nutritional requirements of horses.

Horses have a unique digestive system that is adapted to break down and utilize fiber. Unlike other animals, horses are hindgut fermenters, meaning that the majority of their digestion takes place in their large intestine rather than their stomach.

This allows horses to break down tough plant material that other animals cannot digest and extract the nutrients they need. Fiber is an essential component of a horse’s diet because it helps to maintain healthy gut function and prevent digestive problems such as colic and gastric ulcers.

When horses eat fiber, it passes through their digestive system and is broken down by bacteria in the hindgut. This process produces volatile fatty acids, which are absorbed by the horse and used for energy.

Fiber also helps to regulate the passage of food through the digestive system, preventing blockages and promoting healthy gut motility. Hay is a good fiber source for horses because it provides a steady supply of long-stemmed plant material that is essential for gut health.

Different types of hay have different fiber contents, with grass hay typically being higher in fiber than alfalfa hay. It’s important to choose hay that meets your horse’s specific fiber requirements based on its age, weight, and activity level.

Understanding the nutritional requirements of horses and the unique properties of their digestive system is essential for choosing the right type and amount of hay to feed your horse. In the following section, we’ll explore how to choose the right hay for your horse’s needs.

Picture of bermudagrass hay next to alfalfa hay
Alfalfa and Grass Hay

Choosing the Right Hay: Insights from Equine Research

Equine research has provided valuable insights into the nutritional value of different types of hay and how to choose the best hay for your horse’s needs. Studies have shown that the nutritional content of hay can vary greatly depending on factors such as the type of plant, stage of growth, and harvesting methods.

For example, a study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science found that alfalfa hay is higher in protein, calcium, and phosphorus than grass hay but also had a higher calorie content.

Another study published in the Journal of Animal Science found that hay baled at higher moisture levels retained more nutrients than hay baled at lower moisture levels. Equine research has also provided insights into the importance of selecting hay that is free of mold, dust, and weeds.

Moldy hay can contain harmful toxins that can cause respiratory problems and other health issues in horses. Dusty hay can also be a source of respiratory irritation and can contribute to the development of heaves, a chronic respiratory disease in horses.

In addition to the nutritional value and quality of hay, equine research has also explored the feeding habits and preferences of horses. A study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science found that horses preferred hay that was softer and had a higher leaf-to-stem ratio, suggesting that horses may have a natural preference for more digestible and nutrient-dense hay.

By incorporating insights from these studies into your hay selection and feeding practices, you can ensure that your horse is receiving the proper nutrition and promoting optimal health.

Picture of a breeder feeding horses hay in a field.

Types of hay

When it comes to feeding hay to your horse, choosing the right type and quality of hay is essential for ensuring that your horse receives the proper nutrition. Different types of hay have different nutritional values, so it’s important to understand the differences between them and how they can meet your horse’s specific needs.

Some of the most common types of hay include:

  • Grass hay: Made from a variety of grasses, including timothy, orchard, and brome, grass hay is typically higher in fiber and lower in protein and calcium than other types of hay.
  • Alfalfa hay: Made from the alfalfa plant, this type of hay is higher in protein, calcium, and other minerals than grass hay, making it a good choice for horses with higher nutritional requirements, such as growing or working horses.
  • Mixed hay: A combination of different types of hay, mixed hay can provide a balance of nutrients and fiber.

When selecting hay for your horse, it’s important to consider the nutritional needs of your horse and choose hay that meets those needs. For example, if you have a horse that is prone to colic, you may want to choose hay that is lower in protein and higher in fiber to promote healthy gut function.

If you have a performance horse, you may want to choose hay that is higher in protein and energy to support their activity level. In addition to the type of hay, the quality of the hay is also important.

High-quality hay should be free of mold, dust, and weeds and should have a fresh, green color and a sweet smell. Hay that is baled at the proper moisture level and stored correctly will also retain more of its nutritional value.

When choosing hay for your horse, it’s also important to consider their individual preferences and eating habits. Some horses may prefer softer, leafier hay, while others may prefer coarser, stemmier hay.

Offering a variety of hay types and brands can help ensure that your horse is getting the nutrients they need and also help prevent boredom and behavioral problems.

By understanding the different types of hay available and how to choose the right hay for your horse’s needs, you can ensure that your horse is receiving the proper nutrition and promoting optimal health.

Picture of a horse eating hay.
Horse eating from a hay net.

Responsible Horse Care Includes Knowing How to Feed Horses Hay.

In addition to choosing the right type and quality of hay, how you feed your horse can also impact their health and well-being. Feeding practices such as portion sizes, feeding frequency, and feeding methods can all play a role in promoting optimal health for your horse.

One of the best feeding practices for horses is to provide them with free access to hay throughout the day. This allows them to graze and eat small, frequent meals, which is more natural for their digestive system and helps to prevent digestive problems such as colic.

Providing hay in slow feeders or hay nets can also help to slow down their eating and prevent them from consuming large amounts of hay at once. Understanding portion sizes is also important when feeding hay to your horse.

The amount of hay your horse needs will depend on factors such as weight, age, activity level, and nutritional requirements. A general rule of thumb is to provide 1.5% to 2% of your horse’s body weight in hay per day. Still, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to determine the appropriate amount for your horse.

Feeding frequency is another important consideration when it comes to feeding hay. As mentioned earlier, providing free access to hay throughout the day is ideal. However, if this is not possible, feeding hay at least three times a day is recommended to promote healthy gut function and prevent digestive problems.

Feeding methods can also impact your horse’s health. Feeding hay directly on the ground can increase the risk of contamination from dirt and manure, as well as increase the risk of sand ingestion in horses grazing on sandy soils. Using hay nets or slow feeders can help to prevent these issues and also promote slower, more natural eating habits.

The best way to feed hay to horses outside

As a horse owner, I know firsthand that feeding horses hay outside requires careful consideration to ensure proper nutrition and prevent potential health issues. I have many friends who put large round bales out for their horses, but this feeding method can be risky.

For one, hay left exposed to the element decreases its nutritional value. Rain can cause the hay to absorb moisture, leading to mold growth, nutrient loss, and even spoilage. Sun exposure can cause hay to lose some of its nutritional value, particularly vitamins A and E, due to oxidation.

To ensure the safety and well-being of your horse, here are some best practices for feeding horses hay outside:

  1. Ground conditions: If the ground is grassy and dry, consider feeding hay on the ground to mimic the way horses naturally graze. However, if the soil is sandy or gravelly, use a hay net to elevate hay off the ground. Ingesting sand can lead to impaction colic.
  2. Pecking order: Horses tend to establish a pecking order. To ensure equal access to hay, consider separating problem horses into fenced-off paddocks or distributing several smaller hay piles in the same area, separated by at least 15 feet.
  3. Encourage movement: Encouraging frequent movement mimics the natural grazing behavior of horses and promotes efficient digestion. One effective way to encourage movement is to spread hay in multiple separate piles, which also helps prevent aggressive behavior over limited resources.
  4. Cover large round bales: Without proper protection, rain, snow, and other elements will cause the hay to become wet and moldy, leading to a decrease in its nutritional value and potential health risks for horses.

By elevating hay off the ground on sandy or gravelly soil, separating problem horses, and encouraging movement through multiple hay piles, you can help ensure that your horses receive the proper nutrition they need while feeding outside.

By incorporating these feeding strategies into your hay-feeding practices, you can help promote optimal health for your horse and prevent digestive problems and other health issues. It’s important to work with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to develop a feeding plan that meets your horse’s specific needs and promotes optimal health.

Picture of a man carrying a square hay bale.
Small square hay bale.

Understanding Small Square Hay Bales and Their Nutritional Value

Small square hay bales are a popular choice for horse owners due to their convenience and ease of use. These bales typically weigh between 40 and 75 pounds and are easy to handle and store. However, there are also some disadvantages to using small square hay bales that are important to consider.

The advantages of small square hay bales include their ease of handling, especially for those who do not have access to heavy machinery for larger round bales. Small square hay bales are also easy to store in barns or sheds and can be stacked to save space.

Disadvantages of small square hay bales include their higher cost per pound compared to larger round bales and the fact that they require more labor to handle and feed. Small square hay bales are also more susceptible to moisture and mold, which can impact their nutritional value and quality.

When it comes to the nutritional value of small square hay bales, they can vary greatly depending on the type of hay and how it was harvested and stored. Generally, small square hay bales are a good source of fiber, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals that are important for a horse’s overall health.

When choosing the best small square hay bales for your horse’s needs, it’s important to consider factors such as the type of hay, the maturity of the plant when it was harvested, and how it was stored. High-quality small square hay bales should be free of mold, dust, and weeds and have a fresh, green color and a sweet smell.

Overall, small square hay bales can be a good option for feeding horses, especially for those with smaller barns or limited storage space. By understanding the advantages and disadvantages of small square hay bales and how to choose the best quality hay, you can help ensure that your horse is receiving the proper nutrition and promoting optimal health.

hay.bales
Square bales of bermudagrass hay

Hay Storage and Handling

Proper storage and handling of hay is essential for maintaining its nutritional value and quality, as well as preventing contamination and waste. Improper storage and handling practices can lead to mold growth, dust accumulation, and other issues that can impact the health and well-being of your horse.

The first step in proper hay storage is selecting a suitable storage location. Hay should be stored in a dry, well-ventilated area that is protected from moisture and pests. Barns, sheds, or covered hay storage areas are typically the best options for storing hay.

Once you have selected a storage location, it’s important to stack the hay properly to promote air circulation and prevent moisture buildup. Hay should be stacked in a pyramid shape, with the bales at the base forming a solid foundation and the bales at the top of the stack leaning inward to form a peak.

Proper handling of hay is also important for preventing contamination and waste. When handling hay, it’s important to wear gloves and other protective gear to prevent skin irritation and allergic reactions. Hay should be moved with a hay hook or other specialized tool to prevent damage to the bale and minimize dust and debris.

To prevent contamination, hay should be stored away from other materials, such as fertilizer or pesticides, and should be kept off the ground on pallets or other raised surfaces. It’s also important to inspect hay regularly for signs of mold or spoilage and to remove any contaminated bales to prevent the spread of mold to other bales.

By following these strategies for proper hay storage and handling, you can help ensure that your horse is receiving high-quality hay that promotes optimal health and nutrition while also minimizing waste and preventing contamination.

Here is a good YouTube video explaining how to use hay bags:

Common Mistakes in Feeding Horses Hay

Feeding hay is an essential part of a horse’s diet, but there are common mistakes that horse owners can make that can impact their horse’s health and well-being. By understanding these mistakes and how to avoid them, you can help ensure that your horse is receiving optimal nutrition and promoting good health.

Common mistakes to avoid when feeding hay:

  1. Overfeeding hay can lead to obesity and other health issues.
  2. Feeding low-quality hay that is moldy, dusty, or contaminated.
  3. Feeding hay on the ground can lead to the ingestion of dirt and sand.
  4. Feeding hay that is too rich in protein or energy can cause digestive problems.

To promote fitness, it’s important to:

  • Provide hay in appropriate portions based on your horse’s age, weight, and activity level.
  • Select high-quality hay that is free of contaminants and stored properly.
  • Use a hay feeder or net to prevent the ingestion of dirt and sand.
  • Select hay that is appropriate for your horse’s nutritional needs and consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist if unsure.

Conclusion

Feeding hay is a critical component of horse care, particularly for beginners who are learning how to properly care for their horse’s nutritional needs. By understanding the nutritional requirements of horses, choosing the right hay, and implementing the best feeding strategies, horse owners can ensure their horses receive the nutrients they need.

Proper hay storage and handling are also essential to prevent waste and contamination. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced horse owner, these tips can help you care for your horse and keep them healthy and happy.

Is it OK to feed horses just hay?

Yes, it is perfectly fine to feed horses just hay as long as it provides them with the necessary fiber, vitamins, and minerals required for their health. However, horses in heavy work or lactating mares may require additional nutrition, and hay alone may not be sufficient.

How many flakes of hay should I feed my horse a day?

A horse should be fed 1.5% to 2% of their body weight in hay per day, divided into several feedings. This typically equates to 15 to 20 pounds of hay per day for a 1,000-pound horse or about 3 to 4 flakes per feeding.