Your horse's hay

Assessing hay types and how they fit his needs.

Hay is a major part of a horse’s feed intake. This means particular attention needs to be paid to its selection and feeding. Hay does not come in a fancy bag with lots of marketing (though this is changing a bit with the advent of prepackaged hay products), so in many horse-keeping situations, it is not given too much thought, except to ensure it isn’t moldy. Harvesting, storage and testing can all play important roles in determining whether your hay supplies the necessary nutrients for your horse.

Hay quality

Hay quality is subject to many factors that are beyond the control of average horse owners who don’t harvest their own hay. And even if it is harvested on the farm, weather conditions vary from year to year and from first to second or third cuttings. Entire regions of the country can experience poor harvesting conditions (from drought to floods), making locally-sourced quality hay impossible to find and expensive to import. If your barn has enough storage space and you can afford to fill it with an entire season’s supply, it is possible to test the hay and really know its quality and nutrient content.

Each type of grass has an optimum stage of growth that makes the most nutritious hay. Hay can be grown as a monoculture, in which the entire field is all the same species, or a mixture of grasses can be grown together. The prettiest hay might be uniform, but the healthiest hays are often a mix of grasses. Horses naturally select a variety of plants to eat, so it is best for a horse to eat a mix of hay when fresh grass is not available. However, a mixture of grasses might be harder to harvest at an optimum time, since grasses mature at different times. Depending on where you live and the local grasses grown there, it might be more difficult to get a quality mixed hay.

The real key to good hay is the stage of growth the plant is at when harvested. For grasses, how mature is the seed head? Once the head is mature and seeds are forming, the stem may be coarse and less nutritious, but if your horse is an easy keeper that needs mostly fiber to munch on, this might be acceptable. Soft hay with minimal fiber in the stems might be best for an older horse with poor teeth. Legumes such as alfalfa are most nutritious when the flowers are in the pre- or early bloom stages, and may be too coarse in the later stages.

To determine the quality and nutrient content of the hay, you can analyze it, especially if you buy most of what you need for the year at one time. However, regular analysis though your county extension agent will not give the sugar content — for that you need to use a lab such as Equi-Analytic (see sidebar).

First and second cutting considerations

There are many “religions” surrounding whether to feed a first or second cutting (or third, fourth, etc.). Certain environmental conditions and some types of hay can validate these concerns and unwritten rules, especially when it comes to alfalfa mineral ratios. But in reality, it still boils down to the plants’ growing conditions and the maturity of the plant at harvest. You don’t have to rule out a crop of hay just because it is from a “second cutting” – upon evaluation, it may meet your horse’s needs well, depending on the types of grass it contains and how it was harvested.

Generally speaking, the first cuttings of hay consist of plants that grow faster (due to early spring’s rapid growth) and can contain more stem and fiber. Later in the season, the grass may grow more slowly and be finer in texture. You typically also see more alfalfa content in later cuttings.

The importance of storage

hay types

Once the hay is harvested and purchased, storage becomes important. Hay must be kept under cover, dry and off the ground in most parts of the country, though in some arid western states hay can be safely stored outside. When storing hay for an entire season in damp climates, bales on the bottom row of a ground floor (stall or shed) can easily become moldy even when stacked on pallets that should allow for air circulation. It may be necessary to add a plastic vapor barrier to save those lower bales. Moldy hay can cause serious illnesses, from colic to allergic respiratory disease leading to COPD and heaves. Handling moldy hay can aggravate your own allergies, too.

Types of grass/hay

Hay and grass types vary across the country, though it is possible (and expensive) to ship hay to places where it is difficult to harvest. Also, in years of poor local growing conditions, higher quality forage can be provided in other ways, rather than shipping it across the country. Some hay is harvested, dried and processed into cubes or pellets, or chopped and fermented into haylage. Transport is easier, but some of the long stem fiber benefit is lost. Horses with poor teeth or those that need dust-free hay can benefit greatly from these options.

The local climate will determine what forage grows best. Hot climates are better for coastal Bermuda grass, brome or orchard grass, while Timothy grows better in cooler climates. Oat hay is often used as an annual crop, cut before it matures into grain (do check it for high nitrate levels in drought conditions). Many western states only grow alfalfa, which has a higher level of digestible energy, vitamin A and calcium than grass hay. But alfalfa may have twice the protein when compared to grass hay, making it too rich for many horses.

Warm season grasses, many native, are being more often grown for hay in recent years. They can be higher in fiber, and may not be as palatable since they contain starches instead of fructans. These grasses may also have a low sugar content (but during drought stress they can make fructo-oligosaccarides, which affect laminitic horses). They do grow well during July and August, even in drought conditions. Hays such as teff are often touted as perfect for horses at risk for laminitis, but as with all hays, analysis shows that the growing and harvest conditions vary dramatically, and so does the nutrient content of all hay.

Feeding hay

Horses should have forage available most of the day. If you have a horse with obesity or laminitis problems, or one that just eats too fast, there are many slow feeders on the market. It is also possible to use a grazing muzzle to slow the eating, but many muzzle designs fail to allow enough hay to get through the holes. Hay is much harder to eat through a muzzle than grass, so you may need more openings in the bottom. Round bales are frequently used with a feeder or net around them to slow eating and decrease waste.

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Joyce Harman graduated in 1984 from Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Her practice is 100% holistic, using acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine and homeopathy to treat horses to enhance performance and those with a variety of chronic conditions, with an emphasis on those with Lyme Disease. Her publications include the Pain Free Back and Saddle Fit Books, which are the only books written independently of a saddle company. She maintains an informative website:


  1. I didn’t know that alfalfa was most nutritious when the flowers are in early blooming stages. I think it’s important that we make the best of this kind of hay for our animals by researching when they are most resourceful. In the long run, I think this can help you get your money’s worth by helping your animals get the most nutrients from the alfalfa or hay they do eat, helping them become healthier than they otherwise would have.