Horse Hay Statistics

And finally, here is the third and final part of this informative series entitled ‘Feeding Horses on a Tight Budget’ by Dr. Christine King.  (Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the series, if you missed them.) This post will focus on hay–including nutritional information, planning for your purchase, and additional feeding tips.  For more information or to contact Dr. King, please visit her website.  


Feeding Horses on a Tight Budget (Part 2)
(on economising without compromising)
by Dr. Christine King

Hay stats

Good quality grass hay is much more than fibre or filler. It is food for herbivores such 
as horses. The simple carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals it contains are digested and absorbed in the upper part of the digestive tract. And then the fibre component is processed by the constellation of microbes in the large intestine.

The byproducts of this microbial breakdown of fibre further supply the horse with nutrients, most notably volatile fatty acids (VFAs), but also some vitamins, minerals, 
amino acids, and other nutrients.

The VFAs are an important energy source for horses, as VFAs are converted in the liver 
to glucose (which may then be stored as glycogen) and fats. Most adult horses should get 
at least 70% of their daily calorie needs from these VFAs – i.e. from the fibre component 
of their diets.

Also of importance in the colder months, the microbial breakdown of fibre in the large intestine produces heat, which helps the horse maintain his body temperature. In fact, more heat is generated by feeding hay than by feeding grain-based feeds.

Daily maintenance needs

When fed at a rate of around 2% of body weight per day (~20 lbs/day for the average 1,000-lb horse), good quality grass hay ably meets the adult horse’s basic daily needs 
for the primary nutrients. Here’s proof:

The table below notes some of the daily nutrient requirements for the average, non-pregnant adult horse in good body condition and weighing 1,000 lbs. The horse’s daily maintenance requirements (the amount needed to maintain body condition in an inactive horse) are given along with the amount of each nutrient provided by 20 lbs of good quality grass hay (in this case, timothy).


Maintenance requirement

20 lbs grass hay


15.0 Mcal/day

15.7 Mcal


567 grams/day

655 grams


18 grams/day

34.6 grams


12.6 grams/day

16.4 grams

(Mcal = megacalories)

Now take a look at the daily nutrient requirements for the same adult horse who is in light work (e.g. pleasure riding, showing in equitation classes). Note that 20 lbs of good quality grass hay meets all of the horse’s needs for protein, calcium, and phosphorus, and there 
is only a small shortfall in calories.


Light work

20 lbs grass hay



18.0 Mcal/day

15.7 Mcal

2.3 Mcal


629 grams/day

655 grams



27 grams/day

34.6 grams



16.2 grams/day

16.4 grams


That calorie shortfall can be made up by increasing the amount of grass hay by as little 
as 3 lbs per day, by adding a little alfalfa hay instead (a good idea anyway), or by adding 
a little grain (e.g. oats or barley).


However, a hay-based diet will be lacking in certain essential nutrients, including some trace minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. These nutrients must be supplied in some other way. (More on this back in Part 2.)

I simply wanted to point out here that good quality grass hay can meet the horse’s primary needs for calories, protein, fibre, and the major minerals – as long as the hay is fed in sufficient quantity.

For adult horses, “sufficient quantity” ranges from 1.5% of bodyweight per day (15 lbs 
of hay for a 1,000-lb horse) for the easy keepers and horses with some pasture access, 
to as much as 3% bodyweight per day (30 lbs of hay for a 1,000-lb horse) for the hard keepers or those with higher calorie needs.

Calculating how much hay to buy

Probably the most basic guideline is to buy as much hay as you have room to store properly —i.e. out of the elements. That means under cover, off the ground, and out of direct sun-light. If you have enough space and you want to be sure you have enough hay to last 
for at least 6 months, here are some guidelines for figuring out how much hay to buy:

Use a feeding rate of 2% body weight (bwt) per day per horse

  • for the average nonpregnant adult 1,000-lb horse in good body condition, 
that means
    ~ 20 lbs of hay per day if the horse has little or no pasture access 
and is not in regular work
  • for easy keepers and for horses who have some pasture available, use a rate 
    1.5% bwt/day, or 15 lbs of hay per day for a 1,000-lb horse
  • for hard keepers and for horses in regular work, use a rate of 3% bwt/day, 
or 30 lbs of hay per day for a 1,000-lb horse with little or no pasture access

1 US ton = 2,000 lbs

  • 1 ton of hay = 100 days’ supply (a little over 3 months) for one 1,000-lb horse 
when fed at 2% bwt/day
  • 2 tons = 200 days (6-7 months) for one horse, and so on
  • multiply by the number of horses to be fed
  • there’s a simple formula at the bottom of the page to help you calculate your hay needs

Buy both grass hays and alfalfa hay

  • it’s generally best to buy grass hays and alfalfa hay separately (i.e. in separate bales), rather than buying hay that is a mix of grass and alfalfa
  • grasses and alfalfa have somewhat different growing requirements, so what benefits one may not be as good for the other
  • to get the most nutritional bang for your buck, it’s usually best to buy alfalfa 
that was grown separately, and buy the premium grade

Plan on feeding these hays in a ratio of ~ 80:20

  • i.e. 80% grasses and 20% alfalfa
  • or, to put it another way, feed 1 lb alfalfa for every 4 lbs grass hay
  • I’ll often advise feeding less alfalfa than that, but not less than ~10% of the total 
hay ration (2 lbs of alfalfa per day for the average 1000-lb horse)
  • also look into buying the alfalfa component as pellets; it may be more cost-effective than buying alfalfa by the bale, as you can literally measure out the alfalfa pellets by 
the pound (1 lb = a little over 2 cups)

Quick calculation for one horse:

(rate x bwt x days) ÷ 2,000 = _______ tons

rate = feeding rate, e.g. 1.5% (0.015), 2% (0.02), 3% (0.03); use the decimal number rather than the percentage (i.e. use 0.02 instead of 2%)

bwt = the horse’s estimated bodyweight, in pounds

days = the number of days’ supply of hay you want to buy 
(to keep it simple, round out 1 month to be 30 days)

Multiply those three numbers and then divide the total by 2,000 to get the number of tons of hay you’ll need to buy.

For example, for a 6-months supply (180 days) of hay to feed the average-size adult horse (1,000 lbs) at a rate of 2% bwt/day (0.02), you’ll need to buy about 2 tons of hay:

(0.02 x 1,000 lbs x 180 days) ÷ 2,000 = 1.8 tons

For multiple horses with approximately the same needs, simply multiply the number 
of tons by the number of horses you’re feeding.

For multiple horses being fed different amounts, you may want to consider doing separate calculations if the horses’ needs are very different (e.g. small ponies, large horses, very easy keepers, very hard keepers).

And then pad the total a bit. Just as when you’re giving a party, it’s better to have some leftovers than to run out of food!

Other feeding tips

Here are some other recommendations for optimizing your horse’s health and well-being, while ensuring that you spend wisely:

Feed some fresh plant material every day, as much as is available or advisable.

Factor in the content of simple carbs (starches and simple sugars) for all foods when dealing with a horse or pony who is overweight, laminitis-prone, or otherwise carb-sensitive.

Fresh plant material can safely be fed to carb-sensitive individuals; in fact, in my opinion 
it is essential to their recovery and long-term health. However, it must be done carefully. Contact me or your primary-care veterinarian for specific recommendations.

Also factor in good pasture management. That includes preventing your pastures from being cut up by horses’ hooves when the ground is very wet or the grass is very dry 
or frozen.

Feed primarily raw foods.

Highly processed and refined foods, especially those in which heat was used (including most pelleted feeds), generally are less nutritious than the constituent foods in their raw state. They can also be less safe.

Horses are designed to live on plant materials in their unadulterated state—raw and, depending on the season, fresh or dried. In my experience, feeding domestic horses following the same principle yields the best results.

Add calorie-dense foods only if needed.

Base the horse’s diet on forages (pasture, hay) and add the more calorie-dense foods only 
if needed for work, pregnancy, lactation, growth, or recovery from serious debility. As an equine nutritionist and vet once said to me, “Grain should be fed only as a supplement.”

In case you missed it earlier, when fed at a rate of ~2% of body weight per day, good quality grass hay easily meets the average adult horse’s basic calorie, protein, and major mineral requirements. [see above]

For horses in work, feeding as much hay as the horse will eat and adding a little grain 
(e.g. plain oats or barley) usually is enough to meet the calorie shortfall in all but intensively exercising horses.

Because it is the healthiest way to feed any horse, the best strategy I’ve found is to base the horse’s diet on good quality forages (pasture and/or hays) and feed anything else only as a supplement: only when necessary, only as much as necessary, and for only as long as necessary.

Minimize wastage and satisfy hunger—and reduce boredom—by feeding the total daily hay ration divided over at least 3 feedings.

By nature, horses are grazing animals; they spend much of the day and night browsing for food. Domesticated horses with limited pasture access do best when we aim to simulate grazing with our feeding strategies – as the old adage goes, “feed little and often.”

Follow appropriate parasite control and dental care programs so that the horse gets the most out of the food he eats.

Minimize competition for food by managing group-fed horses appropriately. If necessary, feed underweight horses and those “low on the pecking order” separately.


Copyright 2010 Christine M. King. All rights reserved.


Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the information! I’ve been trying to figure out what I should add to my horses’ diet. I have several older horses that aren’t getting enough nutrients, so it seems like feeding them hay isn’t enough anymore. The information about feeding horses grass hay and alfalfa hay was really helpful. It’s interesting that they both have to be bought in separate bundles. Why is it best to avoid the grass hay and alfalfa hay mixing together? It seems like it should be fine if the alfalfa hay has a little bit of grass hay in the mix for the horses to eat.

  2. Your comment about storing the hay, is great. Why would you buy more alfalfa cubes than you can store, safely away from the elements. That is a great piece of advice. Thanks for sharing your comments and information.

  3. Nick Mallory says:

    My in-laws are getting horses soon, and since I grew up near farms I’m helping them out. I appreciate your detailed information on feed; I feel much more confident now. I really like that you pointed out how feeding multiple times a day might help the horses feel less bored. Thanks for your help!

  4. Anita Mas says:

    That’s good to know that a quality grass hay can meet a horse’s basic daily nutritional needs. I’m sure that they could use something different now and then, but this should be a good base. Making sure that they get the best nutrition is very important.

  5. Carolyn Browder says:

    I have a 22 yrs old, 13 yrs old n 9 yrs old, 22 yrs old isn’t an easy keeper, my 13 yrs old is somewhat hard, I tie my 2 older horses out to forage, how long should they stay out to eat ? Its hard to get n keep weight on my 22 yrs old 16hi QH gelding

    • Casie says:

      Hi Carolyn, I’m not sure what you mean by ’13 years old is somewhat hard’. Also, what do you mean you tie them out to forage? Are they not in a pasture? Having access to forage 24/7 is best for most horses and many will lose weight if they don’t eat enough quality forage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *