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Horse Hay: The best kind to buy and how to choose it

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Feeding your horse hay is a necessity unless they live in pastures with healthy grass year-round. But how do you know what type of hay is best for your horse? With so many varieties available, it’s hard to know which one suits your horses’ needs-especially if this is your first time owning a horse.

There are two primary types of horse hay: legume and grass. Alfalfa is the best variety of legume hay, and Orchard grass is the grass hay I recommend; however, Timothy, bermudagrass, bahiagrass, and Kentucky bluegrass are also excellent choices.

Determining which hay is best for your horse is difficult because no two animals are the same; each has different needs based on age, classification, and activity level. This article covers various horse hays and points out why I think some are better than others.

Picture of a horse standing near its hay rations.

This article is one of a series I wrote about horse hay; the main article is Horse Hay: An Owner’s Guide. But here’s what you should know about the best types of horse hay.

Choosing the best type of hay for your horse

When it comes to your horse’s diet, the best person to guide you is a local equine veterinarian. They know what hay varieties are available in your area and can recommend a type to suit your needs and your horses’ nutritional value.

Your horse depends on you to feed it the right kind of hay. Despite being a relatively large animal, a horse has a small stomach, a normal-sized intestine, and a humongous hindgut.

Horses need to eat small meals throughout the day, unlike non-ruminant animals. Horses have a unique anatomical makeup that requires them to be fed multiple times per day instead of just one or two.

As caretakers of these animals, it is our responsibility to understand their dietary needs and feed accordingly to keep them healthy and happy! Like humans (ideally) follow a food pyramid to get balanced nourishment, horses have an equine food pyramid.

This is a vast topic that experts have written books about. However, the gist of the equine food pyramid is this:

  • Horses need to eat 2% of their body weight in foliage (plants, hay, etc.). So, a 900-lb horse will need at least 18 lb. of foliage daily.
  • All horse hay is not the same. It differs based on protein content, fiber, vitamins, and also the calcium/phosphorus ratio.
  • Your horse’s diet will vary based on its work, age, class, and weight.

Types of horse hay

There are two primary types of horse hay: legume and grass. The best types of hay are a hotly debated topic, with different people preferring one over the other. Legumes and grass both have advantages and disadvantages to offer.

Legume hay (Alfalfa)
Picture of square bales of hay.
Grass hay (bermudagrass)

Legume hay

Legume hays are a nutritional powerhouse. They are an excellent source of protein and have a high percentage of digestible energy than grass hay.

However, they do have some downside; legumes don’t have the right balance of calcium and phosphorous. They are also nutrient-rich, which is not good for horses prone to gain weight easily, i.e., easy keepers. Alfalfa is the most popular type of legume hay, followed by white clover and red clover.

Horses that benefit from eating legume hay

Legume hay is a good choice for broodmares, growing foals, or horses that need to eat lots of calories. It’s also an excellent option for working horses who need more energy and nutrition from their feed than just grass can offer.

Grass hay

Grass hay comes in two primary types of plants: cool and warm-season grasses. The cool-season grasses include timothy, fescue, and orchardgrass. These are plants that grow in the cooler seasons from late fall to early spring.

The warm season forages include Bermuda, Bahia, bromegrass that grows during warmer months, typically from mid-April through September.

Legumes generally have a higher nutritional content than grass hay but depending on the variety of the forage and its stage of maturity, grass hay may contain as much digestible energy as legumes.

Grass hay provides enough protein for most horses. Only strenuously working, growing, or lactating have higher nutritional requirements that may benefit from being fed legume hay.

Benefits of feeding your horse grass hay.

The benefits of grass hay are that it cost less than legume hay, is high in fiber, and provides sufficient protein and energy for most horses, even those doing light work. Therefore, unless a horse is working hard, growing, or lactating, you should feed it grass hay.

What is the best hay mixture for horses?

Mixed or mixed-grass hay usually means that it has different types of grasses in it. Common mixes are timothy/alfalfa, orchardgrass/ alfalfa, and orchardgrass/clover.

The best hay mix for most horses, without any health problems, is one-half Alfalfa and one-half Timothy. But each horse is different, so it’s best to adjust the portions based on their needs.

Horses often need more protein than they get from grass hay. So you can add grain or legumes to give them more. If your horse eats too much grain, it can cause colic or develop other health problems.

Mixing legumes with grass hay is a great way to provide extra calories, protein, and calcium for your horse. Many horse owners run into a problem putting weight on picky eaters; adding legumes like alfalfa hay can help solve this issue because it makes the hay more palatable.

Grass helps balance alfalfa hay. Alfalfa is high in protein, but it’s rich, unbalanced, and many horses are prone to get overweight when they eat it; often combining it with grass hay remedies these issues.

Additional resources:

The following table shows the different types of hay and their health benefits.

SpeciesRegion it growsCostWeed content/taste/palatabilityNutrition levels and health benefits
     
Timothy grassNorth-Central United StatesPricier because of  long-distance shipping needsHigher weed content. Second cutting is best to feedVery high protein content. Ideal for horses with laminitis. Promotes shiny coat, good digestion, and better bowel movements. Ideal for colicky horses and those with obesity
OrchardgrassCool Season grass that grows well in moderate drought conditions. Orchardgrass is less expensive than Timothy Not known for a high weed content.Orchard Grass is high in protein (10-12%) and contains balanced calcium and phosphorus levels.
Bermuda grass haySouthern USA as well as Coastal areasPricy because of the high cost of labor, machinery, etc.High weed content. Quality can be improved by growing with legumes—heat and drought resistance.Does not provide all of the nutrients. That is why it is best mixed with legumes.
     
Oat haySouth and North DakotaLess expensive than alfalfaHay is palatable, but most horses leave the stemsIdeal forage for old horses and gestating mares. Has a good calcium-phosphorus ratio.  Has potential for high nitrate
     
Alfalfa hayNorthwestern states of USAVery expensive. Supply is less than demand, so prices have gone up by nearly 50% in the last 20 years.Very palatable, and most horses love it—virtually weed-free.This legume hay is higher in protein than grass hay. However, it has high calcium to phosphorus ratio, which isn’t suitable for growing horses. Horses love the taste and might overeat, leading to obesity.
     
Clover and grass hay (different types of clovers like red, white, etc.)They grow throughout the nationCheaper than alfalfa hayProne to fungus.Protein and fiber-rich. However, they are prone to fungus, and red clover can cause excess salivation in horses.
     
Picture of a hayfield.

How to evaluate horse hay.

You can opt for any of the above horse hay choices, but it is important to consider the following factors before you make a selection:

Harvesting stage of hay influences its quality.

Hay is harvested at different stages, and that can impact its nutrient content and palatability. You could opt for early-maturity grass for its higher protein content and better palatability compared to late-maturity hay. Both taste and nutrients in the hay decrease as it ages.

Ideally, legume hay needs harvesting when you first see a few flowers on it. For grass hay, the best time to harvest is when seed-heads make an appearance, and for grain hays, the grain needs to be in the soft dough stage.

If you buy your hay from a well-known supplier, you can ask for its hay analysis report. This way, you can choose the cutting and avoid late hay from late maturing grass, which is lower in nutrients and palatability.

Leaf and stem content effects nutritional value of hay.

The leaf and stem content is also important as they impact hay’s nutrition and fiber content. The drying and baling processes both cause leaf breakage. Likewise, the fiber content of the grass will increase with its stem content.

If there was good rain in the area where the hay grows, then the higher moisture content could cause diseased leaves, whereas draughts could dry them and cause them to break and fall. You will need to analyze your horse’s fiber needs when deciding how much stem and leaf content you need.

The method of processing hay influences its quality.

The hay should be worked in dry weather so that there is less moisture in it. Baling the grass when it is moist tends to increase its risk of mold, which is harmful to horses.

Likewise, the amount of sunlight the hay receives can impact its vitamin A content. The hay’s curing should also be done correctly as too slow curing could result in the loss of nutrients.

Quick tips

Inspect your hay

Visually inspect your hay bales. It should be mold and dust-free and clean and dry. Moldy hay has a peculiar stench, and it will also be dusty. Never feed your horse moldy hay, as it could even be fatal.

If you select alfalfa hay, then inspect it for blister beetles which could cause colic in horses.

How hay is packaged.

You can buy square, round, pelleted, or hay cubes. Some horses find pellets boring, and to satisfy their chewing instinct, they might shift to chewing other stuff.

It would be best if you store your hay in a clean, dry area without direct rain or sunlight. Also, make sure the storage area is well-ventilated to avoid mold formation.

Additional resources

Conclusion

There are different types of hay available for horses, and they all vary in their nutrition levels, palatability, and weed content. The best hay for your horse depends on the animal’s nutritional needs, the kind of work it does, and the area you live. Your vet can guide you to the best hay for your horse.

Once you find a good hay producer or farmer, stick with them. This way, you can ensure high-quality hay with a prompt supply.

FAQs

Which hay is better for horses: timothy or alfalfa?

Both types are great for horses. Timothy hay is a popular choice because of its easy digestibility and may be more suitable for certain life stages.
However, alfalfa hay has higher calcium to phosphorus ratio, which makes it unsuitable for younger horses. Timothy hay has a balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio.

Is orchard grass better than timothy hay?

Orchardgrass and timothy hay are both excellent, but orchard grass gets the nod as the best of the two. It has a higher protein and calorie content and balanced levels of calcium and phosphorus.

Which hay is better for horses: timothy or alfalfa?

Both types are great for horses. Timothy hay is a popular choice because of its easy digestibility and may be more suitable for certain life stages. However, alfalfa hay has higher calcium to phosphorus ratio, which makes it unsuitable for younger horses. Timothy hay has a balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio.

Resources: