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

Last updated: July 30, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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 horse’s 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.

Choosing the best type of hay for your horse

If you have a horse, then you know that hay is an important part of their diet. Hay provides horses with essential nutrients like fiber and protein, and it can also help to keep their gut healthy. But with so many different types of hay available, how do you know which one is best for your horse?

There are a few things to consider when choosing hay for your horse. First, you need to think about the types of nutrients that your horse needs. Some horses do best on a diet that is high in fiber, while others need more protein.

You should also consider the size and age of your horse when choosing hay, as larger horses will need more hay than smaller ones. Finally, you should also think about the price of the hay and whether you want to buy it in small or large bales.

Picture of a horse eating hay.

However, 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 them 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 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.

alfalfa hay bale
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 downsides; 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, and bromegrass, which grows during warmer months, typically from mid-April through September.

Legumes generally have a higher nutritional content than grass hay. However, 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. However, there are nutritional differences between grass hay as well.

Picture of a bale of grass hay.

Benefits of feeding your horse grass hay.

The benefits of grass hay are that it costs 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.

Below is a helpful YouTube video that explains the differences between grass and alfalfa hay.

YouTube video

What is the best hay mixture for horses?

Selecting the right hay mixture for your horse is an important part of promoting optimal health and nutrition. The best hay mixture for horses depends on a variety of factors, including the horse’s age, weight, activity level, and health status.

Mixed or mixed-grass hay, as the name suggests, refers to hay that contains a combination of different grasses. This type of hay is suitable for feeding horses and can provide a range of nutritional benefits.

Common mixtures used for feeding horses include timothy/alfalfa, orchardgrass/alfalfa, and orchardgrass/clover. These mixes provide a balance of protein and fiber and are suitable for horses with a range of nutritional needs.

The best hay mix for most horses, without any health problems, is one-half Alfalfa and one-half Timothy. Mixing legumes, such as alfalfa hay, with grass hay, can provide several benefits for feeding horses.

This combination offers extra calories, protein, and calcium, making it a suitable option for horses with higher nutritional needs. Additionally, adding legumes like alfalfa hay can help solve the problem of picky eaters, as it can make the hay more palatable.

While alfalfa hay is high in protein, it can also be rich and unbalanced, leading to issues with weight gain in some horses. However, combining it with grass hay can help balance out its nutritional profile and prevent these issues.

Grass hay provides a source of fiber and helps regulate the horse’s digestive system, making it a complementary addition to alfalfa hay. However, it’s important to note that each horse is different and has specific nutritional needs. Therefore, it’s best to adjust the portions of each type of hay based on your horse’s specific needs.

When selecting mixed hay for feeding horses, it’s important to consider the quality of the hay and how it was harvested and stored. Additionally, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist if necessary to determine the appropriate hay mixture and portion sizes for your horse.

By selecting the right mixed hay and monitoring your horse’s health and nutritional needs, you can help ensure that your horse is receiving the proper nutrition they need to thrive.

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.

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 due to shippingHigher weed contentHigh protein, good for laminitis, digestion
OrchardgrassHigh in protein, balanced calcium, and phosphorusLess expensive than TimothyLow weed contentHigh in protein, balanced calcium and phosphorus
Bermuda grass haySouthern USA, Coastal areasPricy, high labor costHigh weed contentMix with legumes for nutrients
Oat haySouth and North DakotaLess expensive than alfalfaHorses leave stemsIdeal for old horses, good calcium-phosphorus ratio
Alfalfa hayNorthwestern states of the USAVery expensiveVirtually weed-freeHigh protein, may lead to overeating
Clover and grass hayNationwideCheaper than alfalfaProne to fungusProtein and fiber-rich, watch for excess salivation
Picture of bermudagrass hay next to alfalfa hay

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:

The 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 affects the 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.

Picture of yearling colts in a pasture.

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. When choosing hay for your horses, you want to ensure it is free of dust and of high quality.

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. Round hay bales are suitable for horses if it’s high quality and stored properly.

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. Some horses won’t eat moldy hay, and it’s not good for them.


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.

The below YouTube video provides some helpful tips about horse hay.

YouTube video


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 a 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 calcium and phosphorus levels.