hay 101 for horses and equines

Hay 101 For Horses

Last Updated on September 1, 2020

Are you unsure what hay is right for your horse or how much to feed? 

After reading this article you will know all the basics of hay nutrition and know what hay and how much to feed your horse.

What Types of Hay Are Recommended for Horses?

If your horses are unable to graze in pasture because it’s winter, then you will want to supplement their diet with high-quality hay. It can be hard to know which kind of hay is the best choice for your animals since there are several categories of hay to choose from.

Typical Types of Hay For Horses

– Mixed

– Grass

– Legume

– Cereal Grain Straw

Even among the grasses, there are several varieties to choose from, such as:

– Bluegrass

– Orchard Grass

– Timothy

– Brome

– Country Fescue

– Sudan Grass

While all of these varieties can be fed to your horses, it’s important that you consider their needs and the nutrient composition of the food you are giving them to make sure that they are as healthy as possible. (1)

What Is the Nutrient Composition of Hay?

The first thing to know is that the nutrients in your hay are directly related to the leaves.

Grass hay will have more nutritious leaves when the plant is young and more fiber in them when the plant has finished growing.

Knowing how old the grass was when it was cut will help you figure out how nutritious this food is for your horses.

Alfalfa hay is a great thing to feed your horses but you need to know how mature it was when it was harvested and what cutting it was.

Earlier cuttings of alfalfa tend to be more stemmy and later cuts will have more leaves, ensuring that the hay is more nutritious.

The nutrients in all kinds of hay will also depend on the type of soil it was grown in and how the hay was cured.

It is very difficult to decide what kind of hay is the best choice for your horses as they all vary so widely in their nutrient composition; you will want to do your research.

Unfortunately, what you feed your animals will be partly determined by your location so you will have to make sure to supplement what is available to you.

You can ensure proper nutrition for your horses by supplementing the missing minerals or vitamins to complete the nutritional profile of the hay that your horses are eating.

Learn more about probiotics for horses and how they can maximize the nutritional impact of the hay you feed.

Are Grasses or Legumes a Better Food Choice?

Both grasses and legumes complement each other when fed to your horse sin a healthy amount.

It’s important that you understand the nutrients that they each contain.

Grasses have a much lower protein content than legumes do and will provide your horses with less energy.

They are also lower in certain vitamins and minerals.

Legumes such as alfalfa have a lot of nutrients in it, making it a great choice to feed your horses along with grass hay.

It’s important that you are careful how much alfalfa you feed your horses as it has a lot of calcium in it.

Another great choice is clover, which, in the right stage of growth, can have up to 25% protein.

Learn more about horse pasture care and maintenance here.

How Much Hay Does Your Horse Need Each Day?

Most of your horses’ diet should be supplied through grass and other roughage that they are allowed to graze but there are times when you need to supplement their diet to ensure that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need.

When this happens, you will want to keep quality hay and some grain available to them so they can graze on it the way that they would if they were in a pasture.

Most adult horses will need to consume just under 2% of their body weight each day and over half of that should be forage that they are able to find for themselves. (2)

Each half-ton horse will require about 18 pounds of dry matter each day and hay falls into this category.

It’s best to weigh your hay so you know that you are not under- or over-feeding your horses as both can have their problems in the future.

While you may be tempted to begin supplementing the diet of your horses with any supplements that you can buy, having a nutritional analysis done on the hay first is the best idea as it will allow you to learn exactly what the composition is and make sure that you are not over- or under-supplementing your animals.

You want to create a balance in their diet and the only way to do this correctly is to be educated on what they are already eating. (3)

Signs That Your Hay Has Gone Bad

The last thing that you want to do is feed your horses hay that has gone bad so it’s important to know how to tell if your hay needs to be thrown away.

When you get a bale of hay, you will want to open it up and examine the hay inside to make sure that the bale is good all the way through.

If you see any visible mold or smell a musty smell, then that will let you know that the hay was baled while it was still damp and it’s dangerous to feed to your horses.

In addition, tough, brittle hay will be more difficult for your horses to eat and they will not get as many nutrients from it so you want to be sure that the hay you buy is nice and soft.

Look for a lot of leaves in the hay bale and make sure that there’s not a lot of dirt, weeds, or insects in the bale as well.

If the hay that you are going to buy is full of dirt and weeds, then you will have to worry about quality control and may not be able to tell what exactly was baled up.

While it may seem silly, smelling, touching, and closely examining your hay is the best way to make sure that you are feeding your horses high-quality food.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the quality of hay that you’re buying or to have it tested by your state cooperative extension office if you have concerns about the nutrient content. (4)

For more horse guides and tips read these articles:


Learning about proper horse nutrition can seem daunting but learning the basics is easy when you get started.

Hay is a staple in most stables and understanding the basic needs of your horse is very important to ensure a healthy and happy horse.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *