Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

Most of us know that forage should be the cornerstone of any horse’s diet, but when it comes to hay, which type is best for your horse?  Knowing some basic information about the different varieties of horse hay can help.  And while many of us may be limited to the hay that is available in our particular area, some of us have a few choices.

The most important factor in choosing any horse hay is that it be clean–free of mold and dust.  Having no or relatively few weeds is a good thing, too.  The maturity of the hay when it’s harvested is important as well.  The earlier a hay is harvested (within the life cycle of the grass), the more nutrients will be available to the horse.  Late-harvested hays are usually coarse and thick and are lower in nutrients as well as palatability than hays harvested in early to mid-bloom.

Legume vs. Grass Hays

There are two general types of hay:  legume and grass–but sometimes hay can be a mixture of both.  Legume hays (such as alfalfa) are higher in protein, calcium, Vitamin A, and digestible energy than grass hays.  While growing horses, pregnant/ lactating mares, and equine athletes may need a higher energy source such as that provided by legume hays, many horses do not.

While lower in protein and energy, grass hays tend to be higher in fiber than legume hays and can sufficiently meet the majority of nutrient needs of most horses.  Grass hays can be further divided into cool and warm season grasses (depending on where they thrive), with cool season grasses typically being a little higher in sugar and energy content (and palatability) than warm season grasses.

There are also cereal grain grass hays, such as oat, barley, rye, and wheat–these hays are usually higher in starch and nitrates and should only be fed to horses with caution or in limited amounts.

Here are some common types of horse hay along with some basic information about each:

Legume Hays:

  • Alfalfa: Alfalfa is high in protein and calcium but low in sugar. Most horses love it, but not all can tolerate it well.  Alfalfa generally contains about 15-20% crude protein, making it one of the highest protein hays.  It is generally recommended that alfalfa not be fed as a horse’s sole forage ration though (see this post to learn more.)

 

alfalfa grass

 

 

  • Clover: This is a highly palatable hay with a protein content usually running between 13-16%.  There are several different types of clover used for hay, but red clover is the most popular.  However, clover can be affected by a mold that causes horses to salivate excessively–giving horses the “slobbers”.  A few other complications have been associated with clover–see this article to read more.

 

red clover

 

Warm Season Grass Hays:

  • Coastal Bermudagrass:  Bermudagrass is very popular in the southern United States, including where I live in Oklahoma. The protein content of bermuda hay ranges from about 6-11% and it is highly digestible.  However late-harvested (overly mature) bermudagrass hay has been associated with ileal impaction colic, so use caution when purchasing or feeding bermudagrass hay.

 

bermudagrass

 

 

  • Bromegrass: Bromegrass is best when harvested at mid-bloom stage.  It’s highly palatable and has a nutrient content similar to bermudagrass.

 

bromegrass

 

 

  • Prairiegrass:  This is actually a mixture of native grasses grown in the Midwestern U.S.  It’s protein content is typically between 6-8%.  Prairie hay is known to be fairly low in nutrients, however the quality can vary depending on the grass species in the hay.

 

prairie grass

 

 

Cool Season Grass Hays

  • Orchardgrass: Ranging from 7-11% crude protein, orchardgrass is typically grown in the northwestern and northeastern U.S.  This is a fairly good hay for horses if cut in the early bloom stages.

 

orchard grass

 

  • Timothy: This is a very popular grass hay which is highly digestible.  It is known to be low in protein (7-11%), but high in fiber.  Horses tend to like the taste of Timothy hay as well.

 

timothygrass

 

 

  • Tall Fescue:  This type of hay is commonly grown in the Midwestern and southeastern U.S..  Protein content is on the lower end of the scale at 5-9%.  Many horses do not find tall fescue hay palatable, however.  This type of hay is also linked with an endophytic fungus which commonly grows within the grass and can cause prolonged gestation, difficult birth, thickened placenta, and lack of milk production in mares.  The fungus may also cause decreased digital circulation and lameness in horses (see this article I wrote for The Horse.)

 

Schedonorus arundinaceus

 

Whichever type of hay you go with, getting it tested is the best way to know if it will meet your horse’s nutritional requirements.  Many people also choose to mix hay types (such as legume and grass) to meet nutrient needs as well.  To learn more about hay testing and how to do it, see this post.

Ta-ta!

 

Sources:

HAY QUALITY & NUTRITION: Evaluating Your Horse’s Nutritional Needs

Choosing Hay for Horses

All About Hay

Ileal Impactions

Selecting Quality Hay for Horses

What You Need to Know about Horse Hays

Selection and Use of Hay and Processed Roughage in Horse Feeding

Casie

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

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14 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for making this so clean and concise and informative – the pictures really helped. I’ve done research over the years and end up on the case study pages of ag sites and colleges. Information Overload and I end up even more confused. Thank you again for your post! I plan to share your link on several pages on Facebook so you can inform others 😀

  2. K. DeLisle says:

    You mention costal bermudagrass in your article, but what about bermudagrass grown in the southwest? Our suppliers grow their hay in the desert. Would they be the same?

    • Casie says:

      I would assume that the different varieties of bermudagrass would be similar nutritionally, but they vary in their tolerance to cold. A agricultural college or extension office might be able to better answer this question though.

  3. Thank you for the informative article! Sharing!

  4. Great article! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Judy White says:

    Do you have any information on Brome grass?

  6. Jo Schulz says:

    Is a bermuda/prairie grass mix good for horses?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Jo–as long as the quality of the grass is good (no mold, debris, etc), then yes! I would much rather feed a mixed species hay than just one species. Variety is good. 🙂

  7. Casey Witherell says:

    Do you happen to have any information on which types of grasses have low sugars? I’m reseeding my hay field and I’m looking for the best seed mix to apply!
    Thanks 🙂

  8. Jack Chronister says:

    I just got back from New Mexico and had several lively talks with a couple hispanic men and one apache Indiana and one white guy about where the best hay comes from for horses. I’m from Indiana and have always had gaited horses and, of course, I thought no one could produce better hay than Indiana with our world class soil and agriculture techniques but they said definitely not, that studies showed western hay had alot higher protein than Indiana hay. True or not? Also, I had always been told alfalfa hay wasn’t good for horses, that it should be all grass hay however I get most of my hay from a friend that owns a dairy farm and alot of it has alfalfa and it certainly hasn’t adversely affected my horses so I guess I’m wrong about alfalfa also. So, you be the judge, does one state produce better hay than the next and if so what state is best? Thanks

    • Casie says:

      Hi Jack–I’m not sure there’s one correct answer here as you’ll probably hear many different opinions on where the best hay comes from, but I’d say somewhere were the soil hasn’t been overfarmed and depleted of nutrients. I prefer to feed mixed grass hay and we bale our own here at our place in Oklahoma. How late it’s cut in the growing season and the weather conditions at the time can also make a big difference in quality, as you probably know. I would advise against feeding alfalfa as your only hay (too much protein and calcium and also creates the risk of enteroliths), but some alfalfa is fine. I feed my horses soaked alfalfa cubes along with their grass hay. This may not be the answer you were searching for, but hopefully, it helps a little.

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