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Selecting Hay for HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · January 9, 2015

Hay is an important feedstuff for many horses. It’s a staple for stalled and dry-lotted horses that don’t have access to pasture. Horses that do have grazing space need supplemental hay if the forage is of low quality or in a dormant stage. Hay is also easy to take along as you and your horse travel to shows or events where no other forage will be available for a day or two.

To keep ingested material moving through the digestive tract, horses have a requirement for a certain amount of dietary fiber. Hay fulfills this need any time pasture access is restricted, but this fibrous material contributes much more than just a mechanical action. High-quality hay contains energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals that can make up a significant part of the equine dietary requirement.

To choose the right hay, you need to think about your horse’s total dietary management plan. Hay selection can be based on the horse’s nutritional needs, his body condition, and the other things he eats (pasture, grain, supplements).  

Pregnant and lactating mares, stallions in an active breeding program, and young horses will probably benefit from the best-quality hay. This is usually a legume hay (clover, alfalfa (lucerne)) that offers high levels of energy, protein, and other nutrients. Calcium is particularly abundant in legume hay, making it a good choice for horses that are growing rapidly. Indigestible fiber is low in this type of hay so it is appetizing to horses and there is less waste than with a coarser hay.

For many horses with average body condition and a moderate exercise program, hay that contains a mixture of grass and legumes is a good choice. Mixed hay contains fewer calories and more indigestible fiber than legume hay, but it is still appetizing and nutritious if it is fresh and clean. This hay has less calcium and somewhat more phosphorus than alfalfa, but the amounts and ratios are well within acceptable ranges.

Grass hay is the best type for many mature, idle, overweight horses and those with some metabolic problems. Caloric level is lowest, though it may still be too high for safe use with horses that have insulin resistance. Obese horses can eat more of this hay without taking in the energy contained in a better-grade hay. Grass hay has the lowest levels of protein, energy, and other nutrients, so horses eating this hay may need to be given fortified grain or a balancer pellet to meet their vitamin and mineral requirements.

All hay for horses should be clean, sweet-smelling, and free of mold, dust, and excessive rough or stemmy vegetation. Horses should be given 1 to 2% of their body weight in hay or another forage each day. Owners need to monitor their horses’ body weights on a regular schedule and consider feeding a different type of hay if necessary to maintain an acceptable body condition. If horses tend to gain weight on a particular type of hay, gradually switching to a lower-quality hay is preferable to restricting the amount of a better type.