How do you select the right hay to feed your horse? Certain hays are better depending on your horse’s activity level, health status and nutritional needs.

Horses evolved as grazing animals that survive by eating large volumes of fibrous plants. They derive energy and nutrients from these plants through extensive fibre fermentation in the hindgut.

Although there is an abundance of concentrate feed available today, horses should still be getting most of their nutritional needs met by forage.

In North America, this typically means providing access to well-managed pastures in the summertime and properly conserved, nutritious hay in the wintertime when pasture is less abundant.

Hay provides important nutrients including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Feeding hay also helps satisfy your horse’s inherent drive to express foraging behaviours.

Not all grass is created equal and not all hays have the same nutritional profile. When designing a feeding program to provide the very best nutrition to your horse, hay selection is important.

For easy keepers or horses with metabolic concerns, grass hay that has adequate protein but less than 10% sugar + starch is necessary to keep insulin levels down.

Horses with high nutrient demands, such as lactating mares, growing horses, hard keepers, or heavily exercised horses, benefit from higher quality hay and the inclusion of legume hays.

Hay selection can positively impact your horse’s overall health, performance and digestive function. This article will help you choose hay for your horse or you can submit your horse’s diet online and our nutritionists can help you for free.

The Importance of Hay Selection

Horses will naturally spend up to 16 hours per day foraging, whether they have hay available or not. It is important not to limit their forage availability and match hay quality to their needs.

Which hay is best for your horse depends on their nutritional requirements as determined by age, exercise level, physiological status and health.

Horses that are growing, breeding or competing have very different requirements than horses in maintenance. Horses with certain health conditions and dietary sensitivities may also have unique needs.

Appropriate hay selection can further help to address digestive concerns such as gastric ulcers and maintain a healthy hindgut.

When considering your horse’s core nutritional needs, check for the following:

  • Body condition
  • Muscle loss and topline
  • Signs of poor development
  • Signs of digestive health issues
  • Listlessness or poor work attitude
  • Dull coat, skin problems or poor hair growth
  • Brittle or malformed hooves

These signs could indicate that their current diet is not providing adequate levels of key nutrients. For example, a horse with a weak topline would benefit from a higher protein hay that contains adequate levels of essential amino acids.

Types of Hay for Horses

The two main kinds of hay commercially available in North America, are grass and legume hays.

Grass Hays

Grass hay is made of seeding grasses such as timothy, bermudagrass, or tall fescue. These are thin leafed plant species. The leaves are typically less dense than legume hays and have comparatively lower calories and protein and higher fibre content.

Grass hay can add bulk to your horse’s diet without vastly over-contributing energy density, as long as it is not a very early cut. The fibre from grass hay is fermented in the hindgut to yield energy.

Diets primarily consisting of grass hay are a good choice for:

  • Easy keepers – grass hay can be soaked to lower the sugar content, if necessary
  • Gut health – the high fibre content supports digestive health
  • Horses in stalls – grass hay supports foraging behaviour for stalled horses; it can be offered in hay nets scattered around the stall to provide enrichment and to prolong consumption

Legume Hays

Legume hays such as alfalfa and clover are members of the pea family. These hays are high in energy, protein, and calcium and can be used to boost the nutritional value of a grass-hay-based diet.

It is not recommended to feed horses a diet solely consisting of legume hays. These hays are lower in fibre and do not support hindgut fermentation as well as grass hays. [4]

The very high calcium content can also cause problems for horses by causing calcium carbonate collections in their urinary tract. The calcium: phosphorus ratio needs to be carefully balanced, particularly for pregnant and growing horses.

Alfalfa hay can be used to replace up to 10-20% of the grass hay for:

  • Horses in heavy work or intense training
  • Lactating mares
  • Growing horses
  • Horses that need additional gut support
  • To help make a diet more palatable

Comparison: Grass vs. Legume Hay

When comparing grass and legume hays, there are a few notable differences and similarities. [5]

  • Legume hays have a higher protein content (14 – 26%) compared to grass hays (6 – 18%)
  • Early cut legumes are two times more palatable than grass hay, which is an advantage for older horses that are poor grazers
  • Grass and legume hays are equally digestible (except for late harvest legume hays which have a higher fibre content)
  • Legume hays contain up to three times more calcium, making it suitable for lactating mares, hard keepers, or growing horses with a higher calcium requirement, as long as it is appropriately balanced with adequate phosphorus

It is important to note that overfeeding legume hays can lead to poor gut health. Horses are trickle feeders and need to graze constantly throughout the day. Good quality legume hays are often highly palatable, resulting in rapid consumption and longer periods with no forage to eat.

Feeding a mix of legume and grass hay is a better choice. You can purchase a mixed bale from a multi-species field or layer your horse’s feed by mixing hay in their nets or feeders.

This provides the best of both worlds: you can give your horse legume hay with its denser nutrient profile while still meeting your horse’s fibre and foraging needs with grass hay.

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6 Common Hays for Horses

Below is an inventory of six common hays fed to horses in North America. Depending on your geographic region, you may have some or all of these hays available to purchase.

1) Timothy Hay

This is by far one of the most popular horse hay feeds in the U.S. and Canada. Timothy hay is hardy and typically grows well in a variety of weather conditions.

The second cutting of Timothy hay is usually better quality than the first. Weeds have thinned out by this stage, and the grass is usually cut at a shorter, younger stage.

For the highest nutritional value, choose a pre-bloom cutting, as it will have a higher protein and lower fibre content than in later stages. A lower-maturity timothy hay will likely be more palatable than hay of later maturity.

On the other hand, when selecting hay for a horses with metabolic issues go for more mature cuts with obvious seed heads that have already dropped their seed.

Timothy hay provides adequate protein for most horses, but is often lacking in key minerals such as zinc, copper, iodine, and often selenium. These minerals support healthy joints and help build strong hooves.

Vitamin and mineral requirements of horses consuming diets high in timothy hay are well met by a low-inclusion, complete vitamin and mineral supplement like Mad Barn’s Omneity.

Omneity contains 100% organic trace minerals including high levels of zinc, copper and vitamin E, as well as yeast and digestive enzymes for gut support.