Choosing the Right Hay for Your Horse

After reading our article on Body Condition Scoring, you may be wondering if you are feeding your horse properly. Clients often ask us for nutritional advise based on what they have noticed with their horse. Sometimes, this is their first horse and they just feed what they were told by the old owner. Choosing the correct feeding regimen for your horse’s activity level, age, dentition, and other factors should begin with choosing the correct type of hay. Grain can be added as a supplement, if needed. Many horses do well with only access to hay and pasture, plus or minus a ration balancer.

            The first thing to consider is your horse’s energy requirement. Are they mainly pasture ornaments that go out for occasional pleasure rides? Are they weekend warriors that truck it out on trails? Or do you have a competition horse in training, broodmare, or growing foal that needs a lot of energy? Different types of hay have different nutritional content. They only way to truly be sure of what you’re feeding is to have an analysis done of the hay. This involves taking a core sample of the hay bale and submitting it to a lab for analysis. Some labs do group samples if you have an entire shipment you want analyzed. Below is a chart from the University of Florida Equine Department you can use as basic guidelines when choosing a hay for your horse. Donkeys have lower energy requirements than horses based on where they originated from (the mountains of South America). They don’t need grain and do well on lower quality hays, like Tifton or even straw. You also have to monitor their pasture time, or they will get overweight. This predisposes them to a number of health problems, such as hyperlipema and Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

            Now, on to the different types of hay. Going to the feed store can be a bit overwhelming for new horse owners and veterans alike. There are three main types of hay you can feed: legume, grass, or mixed.

  1. Legumes- Includes alfalfa and perennial peanut. Generally better quality than grass hay, as they have less fiber, higher calorie content, and more potassium and calcium. More palatable for most horses1. Peanut hay tends to lose a lot of leaves as it gets moved around, causing it to lose important nutrients. A good option for horses needing more energy or those that are hard keepers.
  2. Grasses- Includes orchard, timothy, fescue, rye, Costal Bermuda and other Bermudagrass varieties, and Tifton. All types have generally the same nutrition content. Variation will depend on growing conditions, weed content, and fertilization. We don’t generally recommend feeding Tifton unless you have a donkey or overweight horse.
  3. Mixed hays- Contain a certain percentage of both legume and grass hay. Nutritional content varies based on what hays are used and in what ratio. Suitable for most riding horses that are not in hard work. Examples include orchard/alfalfa (O&A) and timothy/alfalfa (T&A).

Below is another chart from the University of Florida that has a basic analysis of several hay types.

Now that you know which type of hay you want, there are some other things to consider once you lay eyes on it at the store. The outer color isn’t always indicative of quality. Yellowing can be caused by sun bleaching and rain damage. The sun bleaching doesn’t have much affect on nutritional value, as long as its just the outside of the bale. Rain damage, however, can be dangerous due to mold. It’s important to look inside the flakes and be sure they are a nice green color. The intensity of the green color can vary based on several things, such as where the hay was grown (Western hays are a more intense green than Florida-grown hays) and the type of hay (Alfalfa is a very intense, deep green compared to most other hays)1. Black, gray, or excessively brown hays should be avoided, as they can contain contaminants, mold, and have minimal nutritional value. You can usually smell and see mold when you open the bale. You will notice a musty smell and can sometimes see the mold spores take to the air as dust. There can be black or gray mold spots within the flakes, as well. If you notice any of these things, throw that bale out! Mold can be toxic! Good hay should smell sweet, like fresh cut grass1.

            Another big thing to consider is the maturity of the hay. Mature hay has less nutritional value and is generally less palatable to horses. Grass hays with large seed heads are more mature and are lower quality. For legume hays, the more flowers (purple or yellow) they have, the more mature they are. Thick stems are another sign of maturity. The thicker the stems, the more fiber and less calories the hay has. It is also less digestible. Most of the nutritional value of hay is in the leaves, so the more leaves, the better1. It is worth considering mature hays if you have donkeys or overweight horses, or if you just need to supplement a thin pasture. “Easy-keepers” could also benefit from more mature hay.

            Go ahead and feel the softness of the hay. Legume hays are less soft than grass hays. Mature hay with more stems will also feel coarser. Weeds contamination can be prickly and decrease palatability of the hay, in addition to decreasing the nutritional quality and potentially being toxic to the horse. Orchard is a very soft grass, and is often a good choice for older horses and those with dental issues. It is generally very palatable and easy to digest. Some horses won’t eat certain types of hay, so if you have a picky horse, try changing it up! Try a different type of hay or get it from a different supplier. Some horses like to have their hay soaked, but be careful as this removes lot of the nutrients. This could be a good idea for insulin-resistant horses or those with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, as well as horses that need to lose weight but have a higher quality hay. Be sure to discard the water and consider feeding a ration balancer to ensure the horse is getting everything they need if you choose this route.

            A quick note about hay rolls. These can be a good option to supplement a thin pasture, or to try and save some grass if you have too many horses in a small area. In our area, the rolls are usually Tifton, meaning they are generally lower quality hay. So, it is a good idea to get smaller bales of higher quality hay and toss a few flakes out per horse once or twice a day, depending on the amount of grass available and the time of year. There is also a higher risk of dead animals being rolled into the bale and you not noticing. As the animal decays, it releases Botulism toxin. The horse(s) can ingest this toxin and acquire Botulism toxicity. Infection causes neurologic signs and flaccid paralysis. You will notice facial drooping and a floppy lip, difficulty chewing and swallowing, and the horse may go down and not be able to rise. If you notice any of these symptoms, call your vet immediately.

PSA- DO NOT FEED HAY BLOCKS WITH THE WIRES ON!!! Hay blocks are a recent creation made with good intentions, but with unintended consequences. Leaving the wires on is not only dangerous because of the risk of the horse getting his foot or jaw stuck (we have seen broken jaws and leg wounds from block wires), but it also ruins the horse’s gums. We often see gingival recession and gingivitis in horses that have access to hay blocks. This weakens the attachment of the incisors and can lead to the need to remove the tooth/teeth in the long run. Hay blocks can be acceptable (though not preferred) if the wires are removed and the bale is opened up. The horse shouldn’t have to spend more energy getting the food then what they are getting out of it.

*If you are interested in doing a hay analysis, the University of Florida Equine Science program has a nice chart explaining the different values and what they mean. The link is in the references at the bottom of the article.

Written by: Dr. Morgan Bosch, DVM


  1. University of Florida Equine Science Department. Selecting Hay for your Horse.

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