A forage-based diet is the best way to support your horse’s health and happiness, but it is not always easy to know how much hay to feed.

Horses that are allowed free-choice (ad libitum) access to hay-only diets will typically consume 1.5 – 3% of their body weight in forage on a dry matter basis. [1] For a typical adult horse, this is roughly 4 to 8 flakes of hay per day.

Feeding too little hay increases the risk of gut health issues such as gastric ulcers and hindgut dysfunction. [2] Stereotypical behaviour such as cribbing and weaving are also more prevalent in horses fed forage-restricted diets. [3]

But over-feeding hay or providing hay that is too energy dense for your horse’s needs can lead to weight gain and increased risk of equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis.

For overweight horses, forage restriction is sometimes required to support weight loss and metabolic health. An equine nutritionist can help you determine how much hay to feed your horse and provide management guidance.

The best way to determine how much hay you should feed your horse is to submit a sample for analysis. Knowing the energy content and nutritional profile of your hay will ensure you provide the right amount for your horse’s individual needs.

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Importance of Feeding Hay

Horses naturally evolved to spend 50 – 60% of their time grazing on high-fibre roughage including grasses, legumes, and other plant material. [4]

Compared to other mammals, horses have relatively small stomachs and should be fed many small meals throughout the day and night. Wild horses consume forage continuously, leaving little time spent with an empty stomach. [5]

Ensure your horse does not go long periods without access to forage. Providing free-choice forage at all times is the best way to mimic your horse’s natural time budget and grazing pattern.

Restricted Hay Access

Modern management practices can interfere with natural feeding behaviours. Horses may have limited forage access and instead be fed 2-3 meals of high-energy concentrate feeds.

This shift towards lower fibre intake and higher sugar and starch intake can negatively affect health and behaviour.

Restricting forage access and feeding high-grain meals increase the risk of the following: [2][6][7]

If your horse needs less energy in their diet, avoid restricting hay and instead find ways to reduce calorie consumption by slowing down their intake and choosing lower-quality forage.

Using a slow feeder or hay net, dispersing hay around your horse’s paddock or stall, soaking your forage, or replacing some hay with straw can decrease energy intake.

Forage-Based Diet

A typical 500 kg (1100 lb horse) should consume 7.5 – 15 kg (16.5 – 33 lb) of forage daily or 4 to 8 hay flakes, depending on activity level and body condition score.

Maximizing forage intake and reducing reliance on grain-based complete feeds can support your horse’s overall health and well-bein