Different Types Of Hay For Your Horse And Their Benefits

There are different types of hay available for feed with our large, domestic animals. Hay is very useful feed for large herbivores like horses, cattle, sheep and even some smaller ones like rabbits and pigs.

It is important to have an idea of which hay type to give your horse as they have different nutritional compositions.

What Is Hay?

Hay is any herbaceous plant like grass or legumes that have been cut, dried and packed. The packed grass is used as feed for large animals including horses. The grass used for hay usually still contains the seed head. This is the major difference between hay and straw. Straw contains grass without the seed head. Hay could also be made from cereal crops like oat (oaten hay) or wheat (wheaten hay).

Different types of hay provide different nutritional value to your horse. The leaves and seeds that are cut with the hay determine the nutritional value that can be gotten from the hay. The time when the hay is harvested also determines the final quality produced. The best time to harvest is when the seed heads are not ripe yet and the leaves are at maximum bloom.

The cut plants and legumes are dried before they are packed into bales and stored. Hay is usually dried to more than 80% dry matter (DM). There is some loss in nutrients as a result of the drying process. This means that allowing your horse to graze on the field is, most times, more nutritious than feeding them hay. But hay could still be a major part of their diet.

The weather is the most important factor in the production of hay. This is what birthed the saying “make hay while the sun shines.” The weather during the days or weeks that hay is harvested and stored is crucial. If the weather is too wet at harvesting, the hay would be more likely to develop mold and rot. This would produce toxins which make your horses get sick. If the weather is too dry before harvesting, it makes for stunted and dry grass which produces coarse hay that is low in nutrition.

Different Types Of Hay And Their Benefits

There are different types of hay with different nutrient composition and uses. There are quite a few factors to consider when determining the type of hay to feed your horses. These factors all revolve around matching the daily activity and physical specifications of your horse to the characteristics or nature of the hay you plan to buy.

There is some hay with a high level of sugar content. You might not want to feed a horse that doesn’t get much physical activity that type of hay. The horse can become restless and antsy all day, as a result of excess energy. As a rule, your horse should be eating about 2% to 2.5% of their body weight every day. That is a lot, and this is why paying attention to what your horse is eating is essential. You might want to consult a veterinarian to help you with this and to make sure you are getting it right. You should also make it a habit to have your hay tested before feeding it to your horses. If not dried properly, hay could contain mold and rot which could make your horse very sick.

What Are The Different Types Of Hay Available?

Legume Hays

This is a broad classification of hay with several types under it. Legume hays are made from cut and dried legumes. They usually contain a high percentage of protein and are great for horses. There are several types of legume hays. They include Alfalfa, red clover, white clover, and birdsfoot trefoil. The most popular of these is alfalfa hay. Let’s take a look at some of them here:

– Alfalfa Hay

Alfalfa hay, also known as Lucerne hay is one of the most popular if not the most popular hay type available. It is known for its high protein content, about 15% to 21%. The percentage of protein that it contains is dependent on when the grower harvests the legume.

You might want to consider giving your horse alfalfa hay if you have a working, young or lactating horse. They would need a higher percentage of protein in their diet. Compared to normal adult horses who need about 10% to 12% protein content in their diet. Alfalfa hay also has a high calcium content compared to grass hay. It may also provide more digestible nutrients like vitamin A.

Alfalfa hay has the same kind of long-strand fiber that grass hay has. But, it contains more proteins, essential minerals, and calcium than grass hay. It is the best of both worlds really, as far as hay is concerned and horses love it. Alfalfa hay also aids the water intake of your horse. This is because of all the protein and minerals that it contains, horses tend to drink more water when they eat alfalfa hay. Another plus is that alfalfa hay can be used as a treat for adult horses.

There are some downsides to alfalfa hay though. Because of how palatable the hay is and its high nutrient composition, horses tend to eat a lot of it. If this goes unchecked, your horse can become fat or obese. One way to prevent this is to put the hay in feeders that disburse the hay bit by bit. You might also want to add more phosphorus to your horse’s diet to complement the high calcium content in the hay. Also, because of the high calcium content of alfalfa hay, it may play a factor in enteroliths in horse breeds that are more susceptible. Alfalfa hay is prone to being dusty. This could be very uncomfortable for horses with respiratory problems.

Other types of legume hays like clover hay are also a good option for your horse. Clover hay is usually mixed with grass hay and comes in different types. These include white, red, crimson and alsike and landino. When clover hay is dried, it loses its green look and becomes brown and dry, this is a normal occurrence. If you feed your horse with clover hay, you need to be careful. If your clover hay becomes damp or wet, it can grow mold that is dangerous to your horse.

Grass Hays

Grass hays generally contain high fiber and low protein and calorie content than legume hays. They are also low in calcium and some other vitamins. Grass hays are some of the most common hays that are available for your horse. Grass hays are perfect for horses that do not necessarily have a lot of energy requirements. Take for example, adult horses, non-working horses or horses that are not breeding can be fed on a grass hay diet. These kinds of horses do not need as much protein and energy as active ones.

It is also important to note that grass hays are less dusty than legume hays like alfalfa. This makes them very suitable for horses that have respiratory issues. Grass hays are also suitable for horses that are susceptible to gaining weight. Ponies and miniature breeds are prone to gaining weight compared to other breeds. A diet of grass hay can be beneficial to them. They can feed on grass hays regularly without worrying they will become overweight or obese.

There are several types of grass hay. They include: Timothy, Orchard grass and Kentucky bluegrass. The most popular of these is Timothy grass.

– Timothy Hay

Timothy hay is the most popular type of grass hay. It is made from a particular grass known as Timothy grass. The grass grows naturally in most parts of Europe, except for areas close to the Mediterranean. Historically, it has been used as a major horse feed for decades, all the way back to the 18th century. Timothy hay is very high in fiber content. For the fiber content to be pronounced, growers of Timothy hay need to delay the harvest a little. If harvested too early, the resulting hay becomes very long and coarse. This can be unpleasant for horses when feeding. But, coarse hay could be beneficial to your horse as it helps them exercise their jaw and teeth.

Timothy hay is made up of 10% protein. It is also a great source of copper and zinc. Timothy hay has a good balance of protein and energy. It contains less protein when compared to alfalfa hay. When feeding Timothy hay to horses, they tend to take a large quantity of it. This is because it is not as rich in nutrients as alfalfa hay, so the horses need a lot more of it to fill their bellies. This helps to keep horses that are stall bound busy. They will be less bored if they have to eat and chew all day. This copious feeding that Timothy hay encourages also helps the horse’s digestive system. It mimics the natural grazing pattern of the horse which helps the horse process feed slowly. Its high roughage content also helps digestion.

The major drawback with this type of hay is that Timothy hay might not provide enough nutrition for an active horse or a growing or lactating horse. At least not alone, you would need to supplement their diet with more nutritious feed.

Other grass hays like Orchard grass hay and Bermuda grass hay are like Timothy hay. The main difference is that they have slightly lower fiber and protein contents. Orchard Hay is known for its sweet smell and it has a finer texture than Timothy hay. Bermuda hay has been found to cause impaction in horses if it is low quality. It does taste good though, and horses love it. If you have a horse that does not like Timothy Hay, Orchard and Bermuda hay are viable alternatives.

Grain Hays

Grain hays are some of the cheaper feed options for your horse. The cost of owning and feeding a horse is usually quite high. For a lot of people that want to own horses, they have to balance the nutritional needs of the horse and the cost and availability of the feed. For most people, if the regular feed options like grass or alfalfa hay are not available for some reason, grain hays are the logical second option.

Grain hays vary a lot in their nutritional value. This depends on how mature they are when harvested, and where they are grown. There are several types of grain hays. They include rye, oats, barley, millet, and rice. The more popular types are Oat and barley hay.

– Oat Hay

Oat hay is often grown as a grain crop, it is quite common in the western United States where dryland farming is the most predominant method of farming. Oat hay could be an excellent feed for your horse. The difference between oat hay and alfalfa hay is only in the percentage of energy or protein they contain and cost per unit. That is, alfalfa generally contains more energy, proteins, and nutrients. It’s also more expensive, compared to oat hay that contains much less.

The best time to cut oat hay is when the seed has progressed out of the milk stage and is firmly into the dough stage. Oat hay cut at this stage is high quality, still has some color and has a high level of nutrients and also sweet. If the oat is left too long to mature before harvesting, the oat hay becomes thick and tough and most horses will not eat it.

Oat hay has a high concentration of nitrates and sugar. If this is the main forage that your horse eats in their diet, it might lead to obesity or even laminitis due to excessive consumption of starch

– Barley Hay

Barley hay, like oat hay, is best harvested at the milky dough stage. Barley hay contains a pretty low level of protein and energy. It also has similar calcium and phosphorus composition as oat hay.

Barley hay needs to be fed to your horse green. This is because mature barley has awns that are dry and hardened. These awns tend to catch in your horse’s teeth and cause ulcers in their mouth. Oat hay is more palatable for horses than barley hay. But, barley hay can be used as an alternative when other options are unavailable.

– Forage Hay

Forage hay is a kind of composite hay that consists of oat, barley, and wheat. It is a relatively new type of hay but it is becoming quite popular. Like oat hay, forage hay has to be cut at exactly the right time to ensure a palatable feed for your horse.


This has been deep dive into the different types of hay that are available. For the best type of hay and quantity to give your horse, you might want to consult your vet or an equine nutritionist. Also make sure that you test your hay before feeding to your horse. It is important for you to be aware of the nutritional value of the feed you give your horses. Mature horses should be eating about 2% to 2.5% of their body weight, most of which should be in roughage. You really need to know what exactly you are feeding them.

There is an app that can make a world of difference in the way you feed and care for your horse. It helps you manage your horse’s feed programs, training, and general horse management. The Equine Performance Planning app keeps trainers, students and horse owners up to date about everything they need to know. There is no better horse planning app out there. Sign up today to get started.

Table Of Contents

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Chapter 1 – Different Types Of Hay For Your Horse And Their Benefits

Chapter 2 –  What Is Hay?

Chapter 3 – Different Types Of Hay And Their Benefits

Chapter 4 – What Are The Different Types Of Hay Available?

Chapter 5 – Conclusion



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