Last Updated on January 12, 2021
If you are fortunate to be in an area with a plethora of hay varieties, choosing hay is a difficult decision. Even if there aren’t multiple varieties growing in your region, some larger feed stores import huge quantities of non-local hays. Sometimes it’s not necessarily what kind of hay is “best” for horses, but what your specific horses will benefit from.
Horses receive the majority (if not all) of their nutritional needs from forage. However, horses are automatically limited in grazing/forage options since we put them behind fences! In the wild, a horse will travel upwards of 20 miles per day just to meet minimum food and water intake requirements. So even though some owners have lush pasture for our horses, most of us will have to feed hay in the winter months or at least feed hay supplementally. Some horses are kept in areas without any grazing (intentionally for medical reasons or just bare-lot pastures). These horses must have excellent hay for optimum nutrition.
Horses consume roughly 1.5%-2% of total body weight in forage each day. However, your geographic location will determine what nutrients your horse is getting, and hays can drastically vary in macronutrient/micronutrient content. This is one of the reasons agriculture extension agencies offer hay testing services, or you can outsource to a private party. Mega calories, crude protein, moisture content, ADF, and NSC, and other micronutrient data can be found through forage testing. Some owners will also opt for soil testing, which may reveal regional deficiencies such as low selenium. Protein intake is essential, and you can learn more about high protein hays here.
Types of Hay
Although all these varieties may not grow in your area, horses can and do eat legume hays, grass hays, and grain hays. Legume hays have high fiber and high protein but can heat up horses. Most people feed alfalfa supplementally, but also for horses prone to ulcers. Some hays such as Coastal Bermuda don’t have quite the nutritional content as other grass hays, like Timothy. A big factor in choosing a type of hay may be the NSC (non-structural carbohydrate content) for “low-carb” diet horses.
Overall, grass hays will have lower Calcium levels, high fiber, low energy content, and lower protein content. However, they are generally more affordable and widely available. Alfalfa with higher protein has lower fiber content, accompanied by high Calcium levels. Insulin resistant horses can be very sensitive to alfalfa. Oat hay, although not extremely popular hay, has higher nitrate concentrations and a higher NSC rating. This higher sugar means oat hay is not suitable for easy keepers or insulin-resistant horses.
What to Compare to Find What Kind of Hay is Best for Horses
It is important to first determine if you have any major deficiencies in your current hay/feeding routine. Then you need to analyze your horse’s composition and see if there is anything, he/she may be lacking. For many owners, it’s about bodyweight analysis combined with the workload. Also be sure to factor in any medical issues that will be affected by feed, including hoof problems, equine metabolic syndromes, or disease. Most standard forage tests will not test for micronutrients, but it can be requested. When comparing hay varieties, look at:
- Crude protein
- Crude Fiber
In some areas, it may be difficult to find the blends you are looking for. This can result in purchasing multiple types of hay or supplementing one hay with cubed hay. Other owners prefer to feed on square bales or rounds, and these might not have availability in a specific variety depending on your region.
Hay is sold from feed stores as well as private buyers. We recommend speaking to your local agriculture extension agency to learn more about your regional hays, problems, and nutritional deficiencies. If you decide on something like a Timothy but your region only grows Bermuda, many owners “import” desirable hays. These are frequently done as co-ops among local horse groups so a full semi-load can be delivered at a reasonable cost. This is especially important in areas that experience hay shortages. If there are enough interested hose owners, your local feed store may also order a truckload of specific hay.
Learn about Oat Hay For Horses- All You Need To Know
Although most horse owners prefer higher quality grass hays as a staple, many supplementally feed other varieties. Alfalfa is a frequent “topper” or “add-on” hay for many horses’ diets. When purchasing hay, keep your individual horse’s needs in mind. The nutritional requirements for a performance horse working 5-6 days a week will be drastically different than a backyard horse ridden lightly 1-2 times per month.
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Equestrian, Marine Corps vet, and Morgan horse enthusiast.