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Horse Hay: An Owner’s Guide

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“What should I look for in a good horse hay?” – It’s one of the first questions new owners ask. And it is an important question because the hay you feed your animal can often be what sets them on the path to good health and happiness. So how do you know which hay would best suit your needs?

Hay is a staple of a horse’s diet, but not all hay is created equal. Good hay provides proper nutrients and satisfies their roughage needs. Most horses should eat about two percent of their body weight in forage daily; however, many factors affect how much they need, including age, class, and workloads.

While I am not a veterinarian, and the information on this site is certainly not meant to replace the advice of a professional, I sincerely hope to provide helpful information on the basics of horse hay and prevent mistakes new horse owners tend to make.

This article is one in a series I wrote about horses’ dietary needs. The previous article, What do Horses Eat? An Equine Nutrition Guide covers the basics you need to know to feed your horse correctly.

Picture of a horse eating hay from a hay bag

This guide is an overview of a series of articles on horse hay; To get the most from it, I recommend you click on the article links, which provide detailed information on specific topics. In this article, I cover:

  • What to look for in good horse hay?
  • What is the best hay mixture for horses?
  • How many bales of hay does a horse need?
  • Which hay should you avoid?

What Should You Look for in Horse Hay?

Horses have a wide range of nutritional needs based on their age, metabolism, climate or the environment, working conditions, and overall health profile.

Young horses need more calories than an aging or senior horse. Likewise, a racing horse will need more hay than a horse taken out for light riding just once or twice a week.

In the wild, horses spend their time grazing on grass and other plants. Unfortunately, domestic horses often don’t have available pasture grass to eat, so you have to supplement their diet to ensure they get enough forage to keep them healthy.

Hay should be as green and fresh smelling; a pungent odor indicates that the hay is poor. It’s also important to check and make sure the has no mold, weeds, or is dusty.

Additional resources

Here are some other considerations when shopping for horse hay:

Types

Hay falls into two basic categories: Legume (alfalfa) and grass hay. Grass hay, in turn, can be categorized as timothy, coastal, and Bermudagrass. Grass hays typically contain 8-10% protein, while alfalfa has nearly 14% protein. Always consult your vet to know your horse’s nutritional needs when selecting the hay.

Is grass hay or alfalfa better for horses?

Alfalfa definitely contains more nutrients like calcium, protein, etc. However, its high calcium/phosphorus content may not be suitable for all horses. Pregnant mares and growing horses could develop imbalances and deficiencies if they are fed too much alfalfa. That is also the reason why you should not feed straight alfalfa to growing horses.

On the other hand, alfalfa is an excellent choice for senior horses due to its high fiber and protein content and easy digestibility compared to different hay types.

Additional resources

Hay pellets/cubes/bales

Hay is available in the form of bales, cubes, or pellets. However, in the past few years, weather patterns, forest fires, and flooding have reduced the availability of good-quality hay resulting in hay shortage.

Thankfully, many manufacturers have started making horse hay pellets (which is nothing but hay pressed down into the form of cubes or pellets). It is certainly more expensive than hay bales but can help your horse/s get through hay shortage. Hay pellets/cubes are also easy to transport.

When you set out to buy horse bales, ask to see several bales to ensure they are well-cured and dry. The long strands should be green in color and should retain their elasticity – this means you should be able to bend the strand without breaking it.

Additional resources

The choice of feeding

Another important consideration when selecting horse hay is whether you will free feed your horse/s. If your horse is well-exercised, you could free-feed it. However, if you only take your horse out for riding once or twice a week, free-feeding could be detrimental. Horses tend to spend nearly 20 hours chewing and grazing and, without exercise, your horse could gain a lot of weight.

Note that some horses do well when they are given a choice of free feeding. But not all. So, always take that into account when selecting the number of hay bales. (I will discuss ‘how many bales of hay does a horse need’ shortly).

Additional resources

Age and metabolism

A young growing horse’s eating habits are quite different from a typical older, less active one. It is not uncommon for younger horses to require more calories to sustain them through the day.

As horses age, their metabolism will slow down. But its breed also plays a role; high spirited horses often need an increased caloric diet, whereas horses with a calmer demeanor need much fewer calories per pound weight to maintain appropriate body weight.

Horse breed, size, and pen size

In addition to considering the style of feeding and your horse’s age, you may even want to consider your horse’s size and breed when selecting horse hay.

There are so many breeds of horses, and they all vary in size. For example, you might have easy keepers, small horses, Haflingers, or a large draft horse. Your vet can guide you to the right hay and quantity based on these factors.

The size of your horse’s pen is important too. A horse kept in a small enclosure likely does get enough exercise to warrant free-feeding hay because it could overeat and become obese. But, horses are individuals, and you have to evaluate each to decide if free-feeding hay is appropriate.

Cost

Finally, you can base your decision about hay based on the price. (Naturally, this should not be the only factor you take into account. After all, high-quality hay also means better nutrition for your horses which could help lower vet bills.) You could buy your hay directly from farmers without middlemen, and that could considerably reduce its cost.

Additional resource

What is the Best Hay Mixture for Horses?

The right mix of hay depends on your horse’s individual needs. Most horses do well on combinations like timothy-alfalfa or timothy-orchardgrass, and so on.

Always check your horse’s body condition (and discuss with your vet) from time to time. This way, you’d know if your horse is getting the proper nutrition.

Horses also like sweet feed – a mixture of corn, oats, grains, and molasses. However, molasses tend to ferment in summer/warmer months and could make your horse sick.

Picture of square bales of hay.

How Many Bales of Hay Does a Horse Need?

The number of hay bales you need will depend on the following factors:

  • How much your horse eats; its age, size, and metabolism.
  • Your style of feeding (free feeding or otherwise).
  • Climate and weather (digestion of hay produces body heat, so horses eat more in winters/cold climate).
  • Whether your horse has access to grass.
  • Other supplements you feed.

A round bale can easily last the average horse for 3 to 4 months, depending on its size and the horse’s access to grass and other supplements.

If you feed two times a day from square bales, you should provide at least 3-4 flakes. (Flake is a point at which the bale naturally separates – about 2-3 inches of hay). Feeding in this manner can reduce wastage considerably.

In the case of round bales, two horses could eat a round bale in about three weeks, depending on the size and weight of the bale.

If you opt to feed processed alfalfa or timothy hay, you need to provide two or three 2-lb. scoops. This way, you need to buy at least 2 or 3 bags per week of processed alfalfa/timothy hay.

Additional resources

What Kind of Hay is bad for Horses?

Bad hay is unwholesome and could impact your horse’s health and condition in days. For example, hay with high nitrate content is generally considered bad for horses. You might also want to avoid sorghum, pearl millet, and Johnsongrass hay.

FAQs on Hay for Horses

Can horses eat hay wet from rain?

Horses can eat hay that’s been rained upon. You can also safely feed hay (within a week) that dried thoroughly after being wet from the rain.

Can moldy hay kill a horse?

Eating moldy hay can be fatal for horses. The tiny mold spores found in spoiled hay can cause colic and inflict severe damage on a horse’s respiratory system. So if your hay smells soured and is dusty, don’t feed it to your horse; it’s probably moldy.

Which is the best hay for miniature horses?

Most miniature horses like standard-sized horses should be fed hay that is clean, sweet-smelling, and harvested at the time of its most nutritious growth.

Conclusion

There is plenty of choices available in horse hay. If you are confused about which type of feeding and the correct quantity to feed, consult your vet. There is not a one-size-fits-all in regards to feeding hay. You should adjust the amount you provide based on your horse’s age, metabolism, and activity levels.

Stay tuned for more content related to horse hay.

Resources:

  • TRENDS IN HORSE HAY-L Lawrence – 2006 Western Alfalfa & Forage Conference – alfalfa.ucdavis.edu