Hay Types For Horses: Know The Best Nutrition & High Quality

Hay should have lots of leaves to stems

Feeding your horse sounds simple, until you are faced with the many choices available. You soon find out that there are multiple types of hay and even more grain options. Suddenly, what seemed simple is now very complicated and your horse’s health depends on the decisions you make about hay and feed. First, let’s talk about hay, the foundation of all horse diets.

Can I feed my horse just hay? Horses are grazers, and hay can be 100% of a horse’s diet. Hay provides all of the essential nutrients a horse needs. It’s a superfood and a horse will not be healthy without hay in its diet. If you provide grain for added extra nutrients for energy, hay should still be the foundation of their diet and make up more than 50% of the total diet. The only time a horse would need to have additional food such as grain or supplements is if their forage is not high enough quality to provide all the energy, nutrients and minerals they need, or if they are underweight from past neglect or abuse. 

What Kind of Hay Is Best For Horses?

As soon as you start looking for hay, you will discover that hay is a general term and that there are many types of hay available. Additionally, hay has various cuttings, and will vary greatly in nutritional value, depending on which cutting it is. 

Timothy Grass Hay for Horses

Timothy grass hay is the most popular type of hay to feed to horses because it has the best nutritional content for a horse’s digestive system and unique needs. Timothy hay is high in fiber and helps with bowel regularity, develops weight, and will help grow a shiny coat. Timothy hay was one of the first grass hays developed for horses and has higher nutrients than other grass hays available. The second cutting of timothy grass hay has the best nutritional content because it will be lower in weeds than the first cutting and have more protein than the third cutting, which may be harvested post boom.

Timothy grass is a cool-weather grass. It varies more in price between the first, second, and third cuttings. As a result, the price is a lot more volatile than other types of horse hay because the nutritional value varies so much. As a pasture grass, timothy grass seed is pricier, which usually translates to a higher price of timothy hay. Third cuttings of Timothy grass produce more stems and higher fiber, which decreases the digestibility of the hay. 

Orchard Grass Hay for Horses

Orchard grass hay is the second most popular used for horses. It is almost as nutritionally dense as Timothy grass. Orchard grass also promotes healthy digestion. Orchard grass has higher protein and calorie count than Timothy grass so it’s a great hay for energetic horses or those that have higher workloads. It’s also great for pregnancy, foals, and horses recovering from injuries. Orchard grass maintains its nutritional value throughout all three cuttings of hay, which makes it more versatile as a pasture grass. As a hay, it leaves little to no waste. 

Orchard hay costs less to maintain and plant than timothy grass. It’s a popular, cool-season perennial. Orchard grass has a thicker, but tender blade that stays tender throughout it’s growing season. 

Bromegrass Hay for Horses

Bromegrass is a warm-season grass that is popular in the north-central U.S. It’s also known as Coastal grass.  Because it’s warm-weather, it does very well all summer and doesn’t get as stem-filled as Timothy grass later in the summer. Bromegrass has a very high ratio of leaves and has less stems than many other types of grasses. 

Brome grass is a great substitute for Timothy grass or Orchard grass in warmer climates. The nutritional content in Bromegrass is lower, but the difference is nominal compared to the third cutting of Timothy hay. Bromegrass has about 13-15% protein. 

Brome grass has high fiber and requires more chewing than other grasses. It is ideal for weight management. Because the nutritional content is lower than Timothy or Orchard grass, bored horses won’t overeat Bromegrass when they eat it all day. Bromegrass is ideal for older or more sedentary horses who spend most of their time in stalls. Bromegrass has what is thought to be a sweeter taste to horses and is usually used as an incentive to help picky horses eat better.

Bermuda Grass Hay for Horses

Bermuda hay is a lower-cost option for horse owners. Bermuda grass has lower calories and nutritional content. Bermuda hay is not great as a sole source of food for horses. Because it has lower nutritional content than other grass hays. Bermuda grass is popular in the south-eastern part of the U.S. Although Bermuda grass has lower nutrition than Timothy or Orchard grass, it is also a lot less expensive. And, it is high in Vitamins A, D, Phosphorous, and Calcium.  Bermuda grass is not recommended for horses that struggle to gain weight or have laminitis.

Later cuttings or older cuttings of Bermuda grass are very high in fiber and harder for horses to digest. It has lower protein than other grass options. Bermuda grass is best fed to horses when it’s mixed with other grasses or with alfalfa hay so that horses can get a more rounded nutrition than Bermuda will offer alone. Bermuda should be mixed with alfalfa at a 40-60% grass to legume ratio.

Bermuda grass is often blamed on colic and digestive upset in horses. But, a recent study from the University of Georgia states that Bermuda grass does not cause horse colic. Despite there being no clear answer, Bermuda hay is acceptable for many horses when mixed with other hays. If you plan to feed your horse Bermuda grass, there are three things you should do to help reduce the risks of colic. 

  1. Introduce Bermuda grass slowly, mixing it with existing hay over a period of several weeks
  2. Purchase first and second cuts of Bermuda hay for horses who are not used to it. Newer cuts are easier to digest. Bermuda grass can have as many as 5 or 6 cuttings. 
  3. Make sure your horses have plenty of water while eating. A lack of sufficient water is thought to be one of the main reasons Bermuda grass hay causes colic in some horses. 

Oat Grass Hay for Horses

Oat grass hay is different than oats because it’s harvested before the oat seeds develop. As a result, it has less starch and is better for horses. Oat grass is often used as a forage grass, although it’s popularity is lower than other types of grasses. 

Oat grass has lower calorie and protein than alfalfa, but is a good option for mature horses. It also works well for horses in the early stages of pregnancy. If you live in an area that grows a lot of cereal crops, like I do, you’ll want to make sure that any oat hay is actually oat grass hay and not oat straw. 

Oat straw consists of the left-over plant after the oats are harvested and has very little nutritional value. Oat grass is harvested before the seed develops. As long as it is harvested in the early stages of plant growth, oat grass hay will have higher levels of nutrients and calories, compared to straw later on. 

Oat hay should be mixed at a 5:1 ratio to alfalfa. But, even mixed with alfalfa, horses will still need a copper and zinc supplement. Look for a copper and zinc specific supplement as a general mineral supplement may not be enough to restore the copper and zinc mineral deficiencies of oat hay into your horse’s diet. 

Horses can eat timothy or orchard grass on pasture

Fescue Grass Hay For Horses

Fescue grass is used in the central, east, and Pacific Northwest part of the United States. It is often used as a pasture cover. Fescue grass is a hardy cover and grows quickly despite pasture grazing. It has high nutrition throughout the year. It also withstands drought conditions very well. 

There are two main categories of Fescue grass varieties, short varieties, and long varieties. The short varieties are much better for horses as the long varieties may cause problems. Long Fescue grass itself isn’t the problem, but is often infected with the endophyte. Endophyte is a fungus that’s located inside of Fescue grass. Not all Fescue grass is infected. A recent study by the University of Oklahoma showed that about 85% of Oklahoma’s long Fescue grass is infected. 

According to the University of Arkansas, Fescue grass infected by endophyte causes higher incidents of late-term abortions in horses. It can also increase the term of the pregnancy by as long as a month. Other birthing issues are also common such as increased hemorrhaging and decreased milk production. Endophyte infected Fescue grass has been shown to cause lamintitis in mature horses. 

While Fescue grass hay is an acceptable feed option for horses, owners should eliminate fescue grass from pregnant mares at least 60 days prior to foaling. It should also be eliminated from any horses that start showing signs of laminitis. 

Other Grass Hays For Horses

In addition to the grasses named above, there are other less common grasses that are used in combination grass hay mixtures. Ryegrass, redtop, bluegrass, and reed canary are popular grass hay combinations in the Eastern United States. Wheatgrass, blue grama, bluestem, and meadow grass are popular grasses in the Western and Central U.S. Bermuda, Teff, and Bromegrass are popular in the South and warmer areas. 

Alfalfa Hay For Horses

Alfalfa is a legume hay and is possibly one of the most well-known types of legume hay. Alfalfa is high in protein, calcium, and Vitamin A.  It should not be fed straight to horses. Alfalfa should be mixed with other grass hays. 

Alfalfa hay has 120% the calorie content of most grass hay. Underweight horses benefit from eating a higher percentage of alfalfa hay. Pregnant and lactating horses can benefit from alfalfa. Additionally, horses with additional calorie needs also benefit such as race horses and performance horses. 

It is also used for horses with sensitivities to carbohydrates and sugars because it can provide the nutrients and sugar without the added carbohydrates of traditional grasses. Alfalfa can also benefit horses with gastric ulcers because the additional calcium helps to fortify against future ulcers. 

Horses who dwell primarily in stalls should eat little alfalfa to avoid becoming overweight. Alfalfa causes colic in horses when fed in higher concentrations. Typically alfalfa is mixed in a 1:5 ratio with other types of grass hay. 

Clover Hay for Horses 

Clovers are in the legume family. There are multiple types of clover fed to horses including red clover, white clover, and sweet clover. Sweet clover is not good for horses and can cause a bleeding disorder. Clover adds a number of nutrients into the ground and is popular as a cover crop. 

But, it has a high moisture content, which can be problematic because of the increased risk for mold. Mold can easily occur in both the plant and the hay form of clover. Clover toxicity often comes from the increased alkaline in clover. Horses with clover toxicity should be given a diet completely free of clover. 

Horses usually love eating clover and it’s very easy for a horse to overeat. Clover can also cause excessive salvitating in horses due to a mycotoxin that infects clover. This condition is known as slobbers and is harmless to horses. 

Overall, legume hays have a higher protein level than grass hay. The protein level will depend on the stage of maturity at the time the hay is cut. Protein content decreases as the plant matures. First cutting hay is usually stalkier, thicker, and harvested earlier in the year such as in May or June. Second and third cutting hay is greener, leafier and somewhat finer in texture. This is usually the cutting most horse owners prefer.

Most people will choose to feed a Timothy and Alfalfa mixture to their horses of all breeds and sizes. Mixing a grass and legume type hay ensures your horse is getting the best nutrient content from a single meal, and will help reduce the need for additional supplementation with grains or other feed products.

Nutritional Values of Horse-Quality Hay

The moisture content of quality hay is between 13 and 15%. This percentage is found by using a moisture meter that is inserted into the center of a bale of hay. Reputable hay farmers will be able to show you the moisture content of several bales they store and sell. If the moisture content is too high, the hay may have mold and should not be purchased. If the moisture content is too low, the hay could be older and might have dust or harbor bugs.

Some hay is naturally higher in sugar than other types of hay. Hay high in sugar can cause joint inflammation and obesity in horses and should be fed in limited amounts, or avoided completely. Orchard, Fescue and Oat hays have the highest sugar content and should be avoided entirely for overweight or insulin-resistant horses such as those with Cushing’s syndrome.

Horses need a crude protein level of at least 10-12% in their daily diet to maintain their best nutritional health. Most grass hay contains 8-14% protein, and legume hay such as alfalfa can contain as much as 22% protein. Lactating mares and growing foals will benefit from higher protein content in their forage. Most horses can get all of their nutrient needs from good quality hay alone and will not need additional supplementation. 

Horses need around 14 grams of phosphorus daily, and 20 grams of calcium daily. Both phosphorus and calcium are vital to maintain healthy bones and balance out the enzyme systems that aid in your horse’s digestion. Alfalfa and other types of legume hay include high amounts of calcium, whereas grass hay is higher in phosphorus. This is why most horse owners choose to mix a legume hay with a grass hay to balance out the nutrients.

How Much Hay Should I Feed My Horse?

A horse should eat between 1.5%-3% of its body weight in feed each day. During the winter horses should eat 2.5%-3% of its body weight and during the summer a more sedintary, stall-based horse will heat about 1.5%-2.5% of its weight. The exact amount will depend on the amount of movement a horse has during the day and it’s metabolism. A 1,000 pound horse that is eating 100% hay will eat about 25 lbs of hay daily.

The average sized horse can eat up to 25 pounds of hay per day, which comes out to about half of a standard sized square bale. This means a horse owner should be prepared to purchase a minimum of 15 square bales of hay each month.

A general rule of thumb when feeding hay is 1 pound of hay per 10 pounds of horse body weight per day, if supplementing with other feed or pasture time. So a 1000 pound horse would eat 10 pounds per day, broken up into two or three smaller meals, or provided at all times with a slow-feeding system. 

If a horse is only provided with hay as their entire diet and has no access to pasture or grain, it should be provided with 2 to 2.5 pounds of hay per 10 pounds of body weight. You can feed more or less as you see fit to keep a healthy happy horse. The amount of hay a horse requires will depend on many factors including the age, breed, and activity of the horse. Be sure the horse always has access to fresh water and a trace mineral block to round out any missing vitamins or minerals.

  • Summer Feeding
    The amount of hay a horse needs in the summer is slightly less than they would need in the winter. During the summer, a horse will not need a high amount of calories to create body heat. If a horse has daily access to pasture for grazing, the amount of hay you feed throughout the summer can be drastically reduced.
  • Winter Feeding
    The amount of hay you offer during the winter should be somewhat more than you would offer during the summer. This could be up to 3 pounds of hay per 10 pounds of horse body weight daily. The act of eating and digesting hay produces natural body heat to keep horses warm throughout the winter. Feed at least three times per day, with the largest amount being fed before you turn in for the night. Horses will need to consume more hay during severe bad weather such as ice storms, high winds, or blizzards. If your area is prone to these types of weather conditions, be sure to offer your horse more hay to ensure he has enough energy to produce body heat.
  • Senior/Special-Needs Feeding
    Horses that have no teeth, poor teeth, or other health issues that prevent proper chewing can still be fed hay in a chopped or pelleted form. This is much easier for these horses to eat and digest, even if they are unable to fully break down the food themselves in their mouth. Chopped and pelleted hay can also be soaked in warm water and turned into a mash, or mixed with water-soaked beet pulp to provide a slurry of sorts. This also helps ensure senior and special needs horses are getting properly hydrated.

Hay Feeding Safety For Horses

When baled, both square and round bales are wrapped with either plastic or a twine to hold it together and keep it compressed. When feeding your horse, you will be required to remove the plastic wrap or twine for their safety. Don’t just cut the plastic or twine and leave it on the hay, be sure to remove it completely. Horses are very curious, and may end up eating the twine or pieces of plastic causing impaction or other digestion issues. They may also end up getting the twine caught around their legs, or getting friction cuts from it. 

If using a hay net or hay bag, always be sure it is securely attached to the wall of the stall or fence so the horse cannot pull it down. The openings in a net or hay bag should be no more than 2 inches to prevent the horse getting it caught on their nose or other body parts. This also helps slow down their rate of eating which prevents both boredom and overeating. 

Grass hay mixed with alfalfa is healthy for horses

Are Slow Feeders Good For Horses?

Slow-feeding is the method of providing food for a horse by making them eat it at a slower pace or work for it a little bit more than usual to get that mouthful of hay. For example, if you were to place a flake of hay on the ground, your horse could gobble it up within a few minutes. However, if you instead placed that flake of hay in a hay bag, the horse will take much longer to eat as it has to work for it.

One of the main reasons for slow-feeding is to prevent stomach upset from overeating or scarfing down food at a high rate. Horses are grazing animals and are built to take their daily requirement of food in small amounts multiple times over many hours. Slow feeders allow a horse to mimic natural grazing patterns with hay fed slowly throughout the day. It helps balance stomach acidity and prevent a range of health problems including colic, ulcers, laminitis, and obesity.

Slow feeding can also help prevent boredom. Bored horses can develop bad habits including cribbing, weaving, and pacing around in their stall. By having a horse work a little bit harder to eat their hay, you are not only aiding in proper digestion but also stimulating their brain and helping to keep them occupied.

Slow feeders can also help prevent the waste of hay. Horses are very sloppy eaters, especially when it comes to hay. They will spread it around, step on it and render it unable to be eaten. This means you have to provide more hay in the long run to ensure your horse is eating enough to maintain proper health and weight. As a result, it costs you more money, especially if you have multiple horses.

Storing Horse-Quality Hay Safely

Hay should be kept out of the sun and rain. It’s best to keep the hay above the ground to allow good air circulation. The easiest way to raise the hay off the ground is to stack it on wooden pallets. The longer your hay is stored, the more nutrients it will lose over time. As long as it is dry and free from mold, hay can be stored for up to two years and safely fed to your horse.

Always keep in mind, stored hay is a fire hazard. If you are able, it’s usually best to store your hay in its own building away from your stable or barn where animals are kept. Hay can spontaneously combust if it is stored when wet or damp, as the natural decomposition and fermentation of the plant fibers produces heat which can quickly turn into a fire.

Dangers of Feeding Old, Low-Quality or Moldy Hay to Horses

In general, horses are very healthy animals and are not usually prone to many diseases, but that changes when horses are fed moldy hay. Horses should never be fed moldy hay. Horses are very susceptible to digestive upset and lung inflammation caused by molds or dust in their hay. Moldy hay causes a number of health issues in horses including respiratory problems, including heaves and lung damage, colic, and botulism. 

  • Colic in Horses
    This is a generalized term for several gastrointestinal issues found in a variety of mammals. The symptoms of colic you might notice in your horse can include the horse biting or kicking at its own stomach, inability to pass manure or urine, lack of appetite, and elevated pulse rate.
  • Lung Damage in Horses
    Improperly stored hay, or hay that has been wet can develop mold. Mold will release spores when disturbed which can inflame the respiratory tract of your horse causing both short and long term damage. Heaves is a common example of a lung issue in horses. It is noticed by the horse gasping for breath, flaring the nostrils, wheezing and coughing.
  • Botulism in Horses
    While somewhat rare, botulism in horses can be caused by a dead animal such as a rodent or ground-dwelling bird that has been baled within the hay. Signs of potential botulism in horses includes muscle weakness, tongue paralysis, and severe digestive issues. If you think your horse may have botulism, contact a veterinarian immediately as this is an emergency situation.

What Kind of Hay Should A Cushings Horse Eat?

Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), commonly called  Cushing’s syndrome, is a hormonal imbalance often seen in older horses. Cushing’s is a collection of symptoms related to the pituitary gland. These symptoms can include irregular hair and coat changes, weight loss, muscle loss, laminitis, and more. 

Horses living with Cushing’s have special dietary needs. A cushings horse should consume lower sugar hay. Grain should be avoided. Even though horses with Cushing’s syndrome are older, feeding a grain diet that is specifically labeled for senior horses is not advised as these feeds are high in sugar. Instead, a horse with Cushing’s syndrome should be fed an all-forage diet consisting of grass hays such as Orchard or legume hays such as Alfalfa.

Frequently Asked Questions! 

How Can I Tell High Quality Alfalfa Hay? Hay should be evaluated through visual inspection. Often the outer bales of the hay are discolored so be sure to check inner bales or sample the inner of a large bale. Bright green bales will have the highest nutritional content. Alfalfa harvested at the optimal times, was not frozen prior to harvest or rained on after harvest. It was baled in good time and has been kept out of the weather. 

Yellow or brown alfalfa was harvested when the alfalfa was mature and was left out to dry longer before it was baled. Even when the color isn’t optimal, a higher leaf to stem ration means more nutrients for horses. Lastly, hay with high amounts of dust should be avoided. Dust can be detected by hitting the bale and watching for a cloud of dust to appear.  

How long shouse hay cure before it’s safe to feed to horses? Hay should generally cure for 2-8 weeks before feeding it to horses. That’s because fresher hay may have higher moisture content and a higher sugar content. Hay that’s cured for several weeks won’t cause colic in horses and will be more easily digested. Curing allows the sugars to ferment and settle down. 

Sara T

I've been around animals my whole life. I grew up on a hobby farm. I've rescued animals of many species. I've raised some of the rarest chicken breeds on the earth including Nankin Bantams, Yokohama, Sumatra, LaFleche, Sultans, Egyptian Fayoumis, rare colorations of Polish, Chinese Silkies, Proto-Onagadori, and many more. I love farm animals and writing about them is almost as fun as raising them!

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