Choosing which type of hay to feed your favorite equine can be challenging. Just as we humans try to eat high quality nutritious food to stay healthy, our horses often need the same level of dietary care.
But how do you choose the best hay for your horse? The best hay for your horse depends on his specific nutritional needs. A horse’s age, weight, breed and usage all determine his feed requirements. Alfalfa hay provides high protein nutrition for working horses, whereas a good quality grass hay, like timothy, gives less active horses a full belly without excessive calories that cause weight gain.
A baseline knowledge of hay nutrients and cuttings will help you recognize the choices listed on the feed store sales board. There are two main types of crops suitable for hay: grasses and legumes. Grain crops can be harvested as hay if cut well before the grain develops but is usually reserved for making straw.
Local availability will also narrow down your selection. Many grasses are grown regionally across the United States due to climate differences. It’s expensive to ship hay across the country so be prepared to choose local varieties.
Best types of hay for horses
For easy-keepers and low-performance horses, grass hays provide adequate nutrition without the risk of excessive weight gain. These include timothy hay, orchard grass, brome grass, bluegrass grass, and coastal bermuda grass. Grass hays are pretty much consistent across the board when it comes to protein (6-8%), low in vitamins and low in calories calories.
Most horses consistently prefer certain types of grass hays more than others. If your horse could talk he would probably rank his favorite hays in the following order.
#1: Timothy Hay
#2: Orchard Grass
#3: Brome Grass
#4: Canary Grass
#6: Bermuda Grass
Legume hays are better for horses requiring higher calories. Brood mares, young horses, and horses with vigorous routines like race horses benefit from the higher protein content of alfalfa (14-16%).
Oat hay is a grain hay with a protein content of 12%. Some horses like this starchy hay where others do not. Oat hay must be cut when the stalks are still green and before the grains have matured. Otherwise, the mature stalks are made into straw after grain harvest.
If your horse falls between a pasture pet and race horse in terms of activity level, consider feeding them a mixture of both grass and legume hays. Giving your horse mostly grass hay with a little bit of alfalfa fills their belly and provides a bit more energy.
You can buy bales that are already pre-mixed with different grasses. Just make sure to introduce new types of hay slowly. Your horse’s stomach needs time to adjust.
How do you pick good quality hay
Maturity at harvest, weathering and handling during harvest determines the nutritional value of the hay. This timing and treatment is solely up to the farmer.
Early maturity hay is more palatable and easily digested. It also has higher amounts of protein and nutrients. Visually, first cut hay is softer in texture and has a vibrant green color.
Slower maturity hays and late harvests generally have lower nutritional value but an increase in fiber. However, this stalkier hay allows your horse to eat more without the worry of gaining too much weight.
Most hay crops get at least three cuttings per season. Some areas can get up to eight per season. The longer the growing season, the more times the hay can regrow.
Many believe that the second cutting is always the best. Cool season grasses produce seed heads during the first cutting which leads to thicker stems and more fiber. The seeds only grow once so the second and third cuttings won’t have any. The third cutting is also notorious for being woodier if left to grow too long.
Again, it’s the farmer’s job to time the cuttings. They want enough volume at peak nutrition and before the stems start turning tough.
Even though you can’t control the harvest, you can assess the baled product.
Picking good quality hay for your horse is actually simpler than you might think. Regardless of the variety, check that the hay has the following characteristics before you buy.
- Current year’s harvest: Fresh hay contains more nutrients and is more palatable for your horse. Getting good bales during peak hay season, spring through summer, is not an issue. The quality of winter feed goes down because the bales are several months old.
- Green Color: A visual inspection will tell you right away if hay is on the fresher side. It should be green to light yellow in color. Avoid sun bleached or pale bales. Rich color indicates more nutrients.
- High leaf to stem ratio: Leaves are good indicators of quality hay. Leaves will fall off if the hay lays in the field too long or is rained on. A high leaf to stem ratio indicates proper handling. Your horse will also enjoy eating the soft leaves before the stalks.
- Smells sweet: Good hay should smell sweet. If you get a whiff of mold, stay clear.
- Clean: Avoid bales that are extremely dusty. Settling dust is a fact of life in hay barns. However, if you give the bale a good wack and dust billows out the sides and ends, beware. Chances are the dust was picked up during the baling process and is throughout the bale. Grass hays are typically less dusty, making them cleaner to feed and resulting in fewer respiratory issues.
- Weed Free: Weed free hay is extremely important. Dried poisonous plants are still dangerous for your horse. Thorny weeds can poke or cut your horse’s gums and tongue.
- Bug Free: It’s hard to tell if there are small bugs inside a bundled up hay bale but if you see black, elongated beetles do not buy! If you see these on a bale at home, dispose of it. Blister beetle infestations in hay are rare but can cause severe health issues and death in horses and other livestock. They are most often found in alfalfa grown in the plains and southern states with high grasshopper numbers. Farmers are diligent in checking their crops before baling but it’s a smart idea to still check yourself.
What hay is bad for horses
As we just discussed, dirty hay is bad for your horse. Dust, mold, bugs and weeds are not only unpalatable for your horse, they can lead to serious health issues over time. I know you don’t like eating rotten salads, so don’t make your horse eat bad hay.
Bahia grass is not recommended for horses because they find it very unpalatable and won’t eat enough to maintain their body weight.
You should also stay away from fermented feeds for horses. I’m sure you’ve driven by a farmer’s field and seen round bales or long mounds wrapped in plastic. Ever wondered why? This hay is being converted into haylage or silage by the process of fermentation. Wrapping hay tightly in plastic creates an oxygen-free environment where anaerobic bacteria can ferment the grass.
Haylage has a moisture content of 15 – 40% where silage has over 40% moisture. If manure, dirty soil or dead rodents are caught up during harvest, this moist environment is perfect for growing bad bacteria as well. Botulism is notorious for growing in dirty silage and poses the greatest risk to horses. In fact, it’s deadly.
Haylage and silage will also mold extremely quickly once the plastic is removed and the bale is exposed to oxygen in the air.
Cattle have digestive systems perfect for breaking down fermented hay. Horses do not. Unless you are an expert at analyzing good quality silage, always give your horse fresh, dried hay and stay away from the fermented stuff.
What is the best hay for older horses
Older horses should eat the same quality hay as horses in their prime. However, higher portions of alfalfa will help them maintain weight. It is especially important to feed older horses clean hay. The older your horse gets, the more susceptible his immune system is to overwhelming infections. Respiratory problems and other health issues caused by dirty hay is more common and harder to cure in older horses.
Can horses eat lawn clippings
If horses can eat dried grass, is it safe to feed them fresh cut grass in the form of lawn clippings? This has a two part answer. A small handful of clean lawn clippings is not going to hurt your horse. In fact, it’s a fresh treat.
However, you should never give your horse an entire bag of lawn clippings. Since the grass is cut into tiny pieces, your horse will gulp large mouthfuls without chewing. This is a huge choking hazard. Not only can the lawn clippings ball up in your horse’s throat, he won’t be able to throw it back up.
Most of our lawns are also treated with fertilizers and weed killers. Don’t subject your horse to dangerous poisons. Compost the grass clippings and only give your horse handfuls of freshly pulled grass.
Remember, the most important factor to consider when choosing feed for your horse is not actually the type of hay or the form that it’s in, but rather its quality, availability and cost.
Once you decide on the best type(s) of hay for your horse, make sure to check out this next article to help you determine how much hay you actually need to feed your horse.
And, what about feeding your horse grain? I’ve also done that research for you as well. Learn what type of grain is best for your horse and never settle for less!