How do you select the right hay to feed your horse? Certain hays are better depending on your horse’s activity level, health status and nutritional needs.
Horses evolved as grazing animals that survive by eating large volumes of fibrous plants. They derive energy and nutrients from these plants through extensive fibre fermentation in the hindgut.
Although there is an abundance of concentrate feed available today, horses should still be getting most of their nutritional needs met by forage.
In North America, this typically means providing access to well-managed pastures in the summertime and properly conserved, nutritious hay in the wintertime when pasture is less abundant.
Hay provides important nutrients including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Feeding hay also helps satisfy your horse’s inherent drive to express foraging behaviours.
Not all grass is created equal and not all hays have the same nutritional profile. When designing a feeding program to provide the very best nutrition to your horse, hay selection is important.
For easy keepers or horses with metabolic concerns, grass hay that has adequate protein but less than 10% sugar + starch is necessary to keep insulin levels down.
Horses with high nutrient demands, such as lactating mares, growing horses, hard keepers, or heavily exercised horses, benefit from higher quality hay and the inclusion of legume hays.
Hay selection can positively impact your horse’s overall health, performance and digestive function. This article will help you choose hay for your horse or you can submit your horse’s diet online and our nutritionists can help you for free.
The Importance of Hay Selection
Horses will naturally spend up to 16 hours per day foraging, whether they have hay available or not. It is important not to limit their forage availability and match hay quality to their needs.
Which hay is best for your horse depends on their nutritional requirements as determined by age, exercise level, physiological status and health.
Horses that are growing, breeding or competing have very different requirements than horses in maintenance. Horses with certain health conditions and dietary sensitivities may also have unique needs.
Appropriate hay selection can further help to address digestive concerns such as gastric ulcers and maintain a healthy hindgut.
When considering your horse’s core nutritional needs, check for the following:
- Body condition
- Muscle loss and topline
- Signs of poor development
- Signs of digestive health issues
- Listlessness or poor work attitude
- Dull coat, skin problems or poor hair growth
- Brittle or malformed hooves
These signs could indicate that their current diet is not providing adequate levels of key nutrients. For example, a horse with a weak topline would benefit from a higher protein hay that contains adequate levels of essential amino acids.
Types of Hay for Horses
The two main kinds of hay commercially available in North America, are grass and legume hays.
Grass hay is made of seeding grasses such as timothy, bermudagrass, or tall fescue. These are thin leafed plant species. The leaves are typically less dense than legume hays and have comparatively lower calories and protein and higher fibre content.
Grass hay can add bulk to your horse’s diet without vastly over-contributing energy density, as long as it is not a very early cut. The fibre from grass hay is fermented in the hindgut to yield energy.
Diets primarily consisting of grass hay are a good choice for:
- Easy keepers – grass hay can be soaked to lower the sugar content, if necessary
- Gut health – the high fibre content supports digestive health
- Horses in stalls – grass hay supports foraging behaviour for stalled horses; it can be offered in hay nets scattered around the stall to provide enrichment and to prolong consumption
Legume hays such as alfalfa and clover are members of the pea family. These hays are high in energy, protein, and calcium and can be used to boost the nutritional value of a grass-hay-based diet.
It is not recommended to feed horses a diet solely consisting of legume hays. These hays are lower in fibre and do not support hindgut fermentation as well as grass hays. 
The very high calcium content can also cause problems for horses by causing calcium carbonate collections in their urinary tract. The calcium: phosphorus ratio needs to be carefully balanced, particularly for pregnant and growing horses.
Alfalfa hay can be used to replace up to 10-20% of the grass hay for:
- Horses in heavy work or intense training
- Lactating mares
- Growing horses
- Horses that need additional gut support
- To help make a diet more palatable
Comparison: Grass vs. Legume Hay
When comparing grass and legume hays, there are a few notable differences and similarities. 
- Legume hays have a higher protein content (14 – 26%) compared to grass hays (6 – 18%)
- Early cut legumes are two times more palatable than grass hay, which is an advantage for older horses that are poor grazers
- Grass and legume hays are equally digestible (except for late harvest legume hays which have a higher fibre content)
- Legume hays contain up to three times more calcium, making it suitable for lactating mares, hard keepers, or growing horses with a higher calcium requirement, as long as it is appropriately balanced with adequate phosphorus
It is important to note that overfeeding legume hays can lead to poor gut health. Horses are trickle feeders and need to graze constantly throughout the day. Good quality legume hays are often highly palatable, resulting in rapid consumption and longer periods with no forage to eat.
Feeding a mix of legume and grass hay is a better choice. You can purchase a mixed bale from a multi-species field or layer your horse’s feed by mixing hay in their nets or feeders.
This provides the best of both worlds: you can give your horse legume hay with its denser nutrient profile while still meeting your horse’s fibre and foraging needs with grass hay.
6 Common Hays for Horses
Below is an inventory of six common hays fed to horses in North America. Depending on your geographic region, you may have some or all of these hays available to purchase.
This is by far one of the most popular horse hay feeds in the U.S. and Canada. Timothy hay is hardy and typically grows well in a variety of weather conditions.
The second cutting of Timothy hay is usually better quality than the first. Weeds have thinned out by this stage, and the grass is usually cut at a shorter, younger stage.
For the highest nutritional value, choose a pre-bloom cutting, as it will have a higher protein and lower fibre content than in later stages. A lower-maturity timothy hay will likely be more palatable than hay of later maturity.
On the other hand, when selecting hay for a horses with metabolic issues go for more mature cuts with obvious seed heads that have already dropped their seed.
Timothy hay provides adequate protein for most horses, but is often lacking in key minerals such as zinc, copper, iodine, and often selenium. These minerals support healthy joints and help build strong hooves.
Omneity contains 100% organic trace minerals including high levels of zinc, copper and vitamin E, as well as yeast and digestive enzymes for gut support.
2) Bermudagrass Hay
This perennial grass grows well in the southern United States and is a good choice for pasture grazing and baling.
The shorter variant is typically more suitable for grazing whereas the longer, coastal grass variant is more suitable for baling and making hay. It combines well to make a mixed field when planted with legumes.
Bermudagrass hay has a protein content range between 5 – 15%. It contains sufficient amounts of most amino acids to support equine health, but vitamin supplementation is usually required.
Selenium is often missing from Bermudagrass hay, which can lead to deficiency in horses who only forage on this hay. Other trace minerals such as copper, zinc, and iodine are also typically low.
3) Orchardgrass Hay
Orchardgrass is a cool-season forage that is common in the Midwest and Eastern US. It grows well in shaded areas and moderately dry conditions.
Orchardgrass can grow either as a pure stand or in a mixed field with legumes like alfalfa. Horses in mixed pastures tend to favour grazing on tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and timothy grass. They show less preference for orchardgrass. 
The moisture content of orchardgrass hay should be carefully assessed; it is prone to moulding and nutrient loss when it has greater than 15% moisture.  The same is true of all hays.
Orchardgrass hay can have the same trace mineral deficits as other grass hays.
4) Alfalfa Hay
This protein-rich legume hay is characterized by a deep green colour. At an early stage, the plant resembles clover with a tri-leafed structure. As it matures, it sprouts small purple flowers.
Available with a protein content between 17 – 25%, alfalfa is a dense hay that is both filling and highly nutritious. It is also a good source of calcium, iron, and zinc. It is a good choice for heavily exercised and performance horses.
The high protein and calcium content provides a buffering effect in the stomach which may help decrease the risk of gastric ulcers. Exercising horses can benefit from a meal of alfalfa hay or pellets 30 minutes before exercise to ensure they are not exercising on an empty stomach.
Alfalfa must be fed per your horse’s individual nutritional requirements. Feeding it as mixed hay is the best option for most horses.
Alfalfa is highly palatable, which can lead to horses gorging on it. If your horse eats too much alfalfa hay, it could increase the risk of colic in the long run. Some horses with metabolic syndrome become footsore on alfalfa.
Meals that are higher in alfalfa also tend to get eaten quickly, which can result in longer periods between meals in which your horse does not have access to hay. This type of intermittent feeding can increase the risk of digestive upsets. Horses should not go more than 3-4 hours without consuming forage.
When selecting alfalfa hay, it is best to find a second or third cutting as this will have fewer weeds than the first.
5) Clover Hay
When it comes to clover forage, white and landino types are used mostly for pasture and grazing needs. The other three variants of clover – crimson, alsike, and red clover – are cultivated to make hay.
Clovers are also legumes and provide a high protein content of 14 – 21%. They also provide a rich blend of nutrients such as iron, manganese, and potassium. Like alfalfa, clover is very high in calcium, low in phosphorus.
Clover can be grown easily in a mixed field with grass; it is less common to see pure clover hay. Mixed clover/grass hay is a great choice as it is a balanced forage and eliminates the need to feed different hay types. However, some horses are adept at picking out the highly palatable clover and leaving behind the grass hay.
There are some cautions to note with clover grass and hay. Clover-rich pastures should be avoided, especially following frost conditions. Frost triggers a sugar release in the plant that can exacerbate laminitis in your horse.
Clover hay is prone to growing mould, and its quality should be monitored carefully throughout the year. The moulds on some types of clover can cause bleeding disorders. [#]
Red clovers tend to lead to excessive salivation in horses, but this is a harmless side effect and not permanent. Don’t be worried if your horse gets a case of the “slobbers“ when they start eating clover hay.
As with the other legume hay types like alfalfa, it is essential to balance clover hay with regular grass hay.
6) Grain Hays
Grain hays are made from oats, barley, or rye, cut before the seedheads have formed or ripened. Grain hays tend to be similar to grass hays in protein but may have sugar and starch levels unsuitable for horses with metabolic concerns.
Hays made from grains are typically around 9% protein, but may be as high as 19%. Their overall nutritional value will depend on when and where they are harvested. Grains with developed seedheads should not be used for hay as it will have poor palatability.
These hays may have high concentrations of nitrates if the plants are exposed to stressors such as cold weather or drought before baling. High nitrate levels can pose a toxic risk to horses. When submitting a hay sample for analysis, ask the lab to measure nitrate levels.
Avoid these Common Hay Selection Mistakes
Some types of hay should generally be avoided under certain circumstances.
Providing alfalfa hay at levels higher than 20% of the diet will vastly exceed protein requirements for most horses. Extra protein will be eliminated in the urine, causing the horse to drink and urinate more. Ammonia smells from bacterial breakdown of urea in urine will increase which can aggravate the horse’s lungs and airways.
The high calcium content of alfalfa can also interfere with phosphorus absorption and make it difficult to maintain proper mineral balance. It is important to maintain and appropriate ratio of calcium to phosphorus. For mature horses, this ratio should be between 1.2:1 and 4:1 in the total diet.
High calcium is also eliminated in the urine, where calcium carbonate crystals or stones can form. This leads to cystitis and is particularly a problem in older geldings.
Horses that are overweight, prone to laminitis or that have metabolic dysfunction should avoid energy-dense alfalfa hay. These horses do best with low-quality grass hay that is less than 10% hydrolyzable carbohydrates (starch + simple sugars).
Soaking your horse’s hay can help to reduce the sugar content and decrease the digestible energy. Sugar content also varies depending on the time of day the hay is harvested and weather conditions.
Pregnant mares should not be given tall Fescue grass hay because it often contains fungal endophytes that can lead to abortion or stillbirth. Never feed mouldy hay to any horse as it can contain dangerous mycotoxins that could harm your horse.
The best way to know what hay to feed your horse is to obtain a hay analysis. If you have a hay analysis report, our equine nutritionists will provide a complimentary review to help you develop a diet plan that meets your horse’s needs.
How to Choose Hay
When you arrive at a feedlot or hay dealer, keep the following considerations in mind to help you select the best hay for your horse.
1) Look for soft, green, leafy hay
The aroma, colour, appearance and texture of the hay can give you some indication of the quality and nutritional value.
Good quality hay has a pleasant, grass-like scent. Off odors often signify molding or bacterial growth even if you cannot see it.
Horses prefer to eat soft things. Hay with fine stems and lots of green leaves will be the easiest to chew. Although horses can eat rough hay, it is best to avoid stalky hay.
For senior horses, rough or stalky hay may be too tough to chew properly. Hay that is not well-chewed can negatively affect your horse’s digestive health and may not be broken down well enough to extract all of the nutrients from it.
Don’t be dissuaded by hay that is slightly discoloured on the outside. This is common, especially for stacked hay. It is important to examine the insides of the hay bales and look for hay that is green and leafy in the interior of the bale.
2) Avoid thickened legume hay or seeded grass hay
Legume hays such as alfalfa become less palatable as they mature. When choosing hay, you want to choose young legumes that are abundant in nutritious leaves and have not yet developed seedpods. 
For grass hays, thicker stalked hay that has already made seeds will have less overall protein content. Later cuts of grass hay likely have lower sugar and starch levels. As long as it is still green and fresh-smelling it may be ideal for horses with metabolic issues.
Choose an earlier cut, more nutritious hay for hard keepers and horses in heavy exercise. Alternatively, later cuts that are stalkier are more appropriate for easy keepers or laminitis-prone horses.
3) Check for mold, dust, or potential toxins
Choose hay that has a low dust content and avoid hay that has been sitting around for a while where mould may have set in. This is particularly a risk for hay exposed to high moisture levels in hot, humid or damp conditions and hays baled without proper drying.
Hay that has been in storage for a longer period of time will also lose some of its nutrient value. Vitamin levels, including vitamins E, C and A will continue to decrease as hay is stored, with minimal levels remaining after 6 months.
Alfalfa hay is prone to blister beetle infestation, particularly in the Midwest and Southwest US during mid to late summer. Find out if the hay’s area of origin has been prone to infestations of blister beetles.
These beetles are bad for hay quality and are extremely toxic to the horse when ingested. Ingestion of the cantharidin toxin from their bodies is highly likely to cause digestive disturbances including colic and diarrhea, along with kidney damage and heart issues.
4) Avoid overly heavy bales
Heavier bales may indicate that the hay wasn’t properly cured or dried before baling. Wet bales of hay will be heavier and they are also at higher risk of mould growth.
Inspect all bales thoroughly by opening a bale or testing the middle of a bale. This can be harder with large round bales. Avoid bales that are warm to the touch as this also indicates high moisture content.
Grass should be baled at a roughly 10% moisture and a maximum of 15 – 20% moisture content. Hays with high moisture will have to undergo a “sweat” in the loft before they can be fed. This is caused by growth of thermophilic molds which will subside as the moisture levels drop.
5) Only buy what you can store and use
Make sure to buy only as much hay as you can safely store in a cool, dry place on your property. Even when it’s on sale, don’t overbuy. Hay quality can deteriorate quickly if left outside in the sun and rain.
Hay exposed to rain has an increased risk of mould growth and mycotoxin production. It will also have lower nutritional value with decreased vitamin and energy content. Sun exposure on hay also affects its quality by accelerating breakdown of key nutrients, such as vitamin E.
The nutrient loss increases after a long period of storage. Hay that has been stored for over a year will have lost more than half the nutrient content. Purchase hay that is this season’s cutting only.  Legume hays are most likely to experience large losses as their leaves will crumble. To a lesser extent, there is also some blade loss from grass hays over time.
6) Pick the most appropriate format
Hay can come in a variety of bale types including small square bales, large square bales and round bales. This choice comes down to preference and convenience for how your stable and outdoor feeding areas are arranged.
Small square bales are preferred for their convenience and ease of handling but often come at a higher price. Large square bales and round bales are both good options if you have the storage space and equipment to accommodate them.
Large bales carry a higher risk of contamination with mold or Listeria. Small animals may also be picked up in the baling process and are likely to be missed in large bales. When they die, botulism toxin can be released.
Wrapped bales should be used with caution. Although the nutrient content is better preserved with wrapping, these often have higher moisture content, increasing the risk of spoiling once unwrapped. They may be appropriate for larger herds that quickly consume the unwrapped bales.
7) Submit a hay sample for analysis
Before purchasing hay in bulk, get a forage laboratory to do a hay analysis for you. A hay analysis is relatively inexpensive and will help you design a feeding plan to meet all of your horse’s needs.
The best way to obtain a representative hay sample is to use a bale probe or corer. These are available for purchase or rental from most local feed stores or your local state agricultural extension agent.
Corers should be used in the centre of the small end of a square bale to obtain a good sample. Ideally, sample 10-20 individual bales to get an accurate representation of quality.
If a bale corer is not available to you, stainless steel scissors are an alternative. Open a bale gently and try not to disturb the leaves. Grab a handful of hay from the interior and cut a small sample with a pair of scissors. Place the contents in a ziplock bag.
For a thorough hay analysis, you typically need to submit 100 – 500 grams (up to 1 lb) of hay. Request an equine hay analysis to tell you moisture level, protein, fibre and calculated energy content.
Other important values include the levels of starch and ethanol-soluble sugars. This can help you decide whether the hay is appropriate for a horse with metabolic issues or whether you should soak the hay to remove some sugars.
Other nutrients are also important for your horse’s health but may not be included in a standard hay analysis. Selenium, amino acid and vitamin levels are often offered as optional add-ons with an extra fee.
Once you know your horse’s hay composition, you can develop an appropriate ration to meet your horse’s needs. If you invest in the right quality hay, you can cut back on commercial feeds and save money.
We encourage you to consult with an equine nutritionist once you have your hay analysis. You can submit your horse’s diet for free online and our nutritionists can help.
Feeding Hay to your Horse
Once you have decided on the type of hay to feed your horse, it is time to decide how to feed your horse. There are two main options for providing hay to your horse: feeding with a low feeder or feeding at chest height.
You may want to feed your horse from ground level, encouraging a natural head carriage that mimics foraging behaviours in the wild. Low feeders are beneficial for horses that tend to pull down hay racks or play with hay nets.
The downside of feeding hay off the ground is the increased risk of bacterial contamination. If horses are consuming hay near their manure piles, this could also raise the risk of internal parasites.
Leaving hay on the ground outside should be avoided, especially if you live in a sandy area or have soil that is rich in iron. This will help to avoid sand colic and excess iron intake.
Feeding at Chest Height
Hay racks, troughs, and nets are a great way to mix different hay types and slow the consumption of your horse’s forage. Feeding at chest level or lower, instead of from wall mounted racks or highly placed nets, reduces the danger of corneal scratches from small particles of forage or dirt. It also allows for easier mucus drainage.
Using a hay net allows you to easily soak the hay, which is beneficial for horses with allergies. Soaking hay helps cut down on dust, seeds, and other contaminants that can irritate the respiratory tract.
For horses with metabolic concerns, soaking the hay can also decrease sugar content.
It may seem overwhelming to choose the right hay for your horse, but it doesn’t need to be. Submit your horse’s information online and we can help you select the right forage and feeding plan to meet your horse’s needs.
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- University of Minnesota Extension Selecting and storing hay. University of Minnesota Extension. 2020.
- Martinson, K. et al. Horse Preference, Forage Yield, and Species Persistence of 12 Perennial Cool-Season Grass Mixtures Under Horse Grazing. J Equine Vet Sci. 2016.
- Martinson, K. et al. The Effect of Harvest Moisture and Bale Wrapping on Forage Quality, Temperature, and Mold in Orchardgrass Hay. J Equine Vet Sci. 2011.
- Martinson, K. et al. Feeding clover to your horse. University of Minnesota Extension. 2023.