Finding the Good Stuff, or What Type of Hay to Feed Your Horse

A few months back, a friend asked for some help with some horses that she was taking care of while the owners were away. As we worked, I glanced over at the hay stacked up in one of the empty stalls. While there was plenty of hay, its make up was something I had not seen. It was a grass hay, but it was a finer stemmed, dull green color, and it didn’t look like hay that I was used to seeing. I’d long known that my brother, Doc Randall the Younger, made an annual trek north to pick up several tons of hay from dad, but I assumed that was because he preferred the family brand to anything else. But after looking at that hay, I wondered if he might have the right idea after all. Dad’s price might be better, but it looked like the quality was, too.

I started talking with dad, the original Doc Randall, and he was initially a bit wary to even start talking about hay and hay selection simply because the topic can be so large. However, with winter approaching, even he agreed that now is as good a time as any to tackle something difficult. So, this post is the result of several conversations with both Doc Randalls as well as Dr. Dave Whitaker, a longtime professor and past director of the Horse Science program at Middle Tennessee State University.

A few things to mention before we get started…

  • Although grains and minerals will be mentioned in this post, I’ll cover these topics in greater depth in a different post. This post focuses on hay.
  • This post discusses hay types commonly grown and fed within the United States. While much of what is mentioned here is applicable around the world, you may need to first discuss your feeding program with your veterinarian, extension agent, or equine nutritionist in order to feed your horse correctly for the region in which it resides.

Types of Hay

Anyone who keeps horses in a barn or stable feeds hay. In colder climates, ranchers generally feed some type of hay to livestock to get them through the winter. In drought periods, ranchers will again turn to hay or hay cubes in order to have something to feed. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Generally speaking, these characteristics make up good hay:

  • It is green and is not moldy or dusty.
  • It has small stems, lots of leaves, and no weeds.
  • It does not have blister beetles.
  • The hay was baled at the proper time and maturity level. Rain can cause reduction in quality, leading to mold or rot, but can used after it dries properly. Additionally, the longer hay takes to dry, the lower the quality.

Hay falls into one of two categories: legumes and grasses. Commonly fed legume hays include alfalfa and clover, with most other hays such as Timothy grass, Bermuda grass, or fescue falling into the grass family.

What Kind of Feed Does Your Horse Really Need? How Much?

You know how human nutritionists seem to have a love affair with kale? It seems–and with good reason, I might add–that they are always pushing lean meats, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables to be the mainstays rather than oddities in our diets. Several years back, I was writing a history of ranching during the 1940s on Montana’s Powder River with my Great Aunt Lucille. Some 60 years later, she still remembered a very wet 1944 summer, giving them a wonderful hay crop that she referred to as “liquid gold.” They had about 70 acres of alfalfa and some native grass hay that was flood irrigated from the hills on the west. That hay crop got them through many a winter. My point is this: good hay is to horses what kale is to humans. According to Doc Randall the Elder, “If good quality hay is not the foundation of your horse’s nutritional program, you’re probably in trouble.” So, when you’re looking to buy hay, what should you look for?

  • Good hay will smell good. If it smells good to you, odds are that it smells pretty good to your horse, too.
  • The hay was put up at the right level of maturity. Depending on what cutting the hay is, when it was harvested, and when it was baled, the hay producer might be sacrificing protein and quality for tonnage.
  • Ideally, know the hay producer that grew the hay (think of this as the equine version of knowing the farmer at the farmers’ market). Not only does it help to build your community, but it’s a good way to ensure that your hay is coming from a reputable person. Also, it’s better and often cheaper to buy hay in bulk, that is, by the ton.
  • Watch out for blister beetles. It was during conversations with Matt (he’s Doc Randall the Younger) that I learned of the existence of blister beetles. The beetle contains a defensive, toxic chemical, and they can be lethal to horses, sheep and cattle. If the beetle is crushed against skin, a painful blister can result. Cantharidin, which is the toxic chemical, is very stable and remains toxic in dead beetles for a long time. On a good note, blister beetles are not active in the first cutting of hay.
  • If you’re deciding between feeding hay, hay cubes, or hay pellets, baled hay or hay cubes are the better options for one simple reason: fiber length. Hay pellets are generally comprised of finely ground hay, which shortens the fiber length. A horse’s gut is designed to work with longer fiber lengths. Horses that are fed pellets with finely ground hay are more likely to have problems with colic and impaction colics. Horses have a very long digestive tract, and a high-fiber diet will help their digestive system to operate normally, lessening the chance of colic. According to Doc Randall the Younger, “When feeding livestock, what comes in a bale is more important than what comes in a bag.” Doc Randall the Elder adds on to this by saying, “It’s easier to hide poor-quality hay in pellets than it is in cubes or baled hay.”

When determining feed needs, consider what you are doing with your horse. Is it a performance horse with a heavy race, rodeo, or show schedule, or is it a family pet? My parents currently have ornamental pasture nags. They’re ridden on the rare occasion. They’re nice horses, but they do not have the same nutrition and feed requirements as a racehorse or cutting horse in active training. The more that your horse is used, the higher quality and quantity of feed it will need.

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 2.10.35 PM
Hay Nutrient Content on an As-Fed Basis

If you’re wondering how much to feed, first determine your horse’s body condition, which is done using the Henneke body condition scale. Horses are like people in that they have different metabolic rates. Evaluate your horse’s body condition score on a regular basis to make sure that you are feeding it appropriately. Once you know your horse’s body condition, you can feed the appropriate combination of grain and hay to help your horse gain, maintain, or lose weight. In the immortal words of Bob Long, “Give them what they need, then fill them up.” This is sound advice, which is echoed by Doc Randall the Younger, who says to “Feed at the weight and body condition score that the horse should be. Don’t feed a 1200-pound horse an 1100-pound horse’s diet.”

Henneke Horse Body Condition Scale

Testing Hay Quality

Different types of grass grow in different areas of the United States and the world, and this will affect hay quality. Hay quality can and will differ from region to region because of factors such as soil quality, fertilization, weed control, and how much irrigation water or rain the hay fields received. However, you should know the type of hay locally available to you. This likely means having your hay tested to know its makeup as well as its nutrient and fiber content. Unfortunately, hay bales do not come with those helpful guidelines, indicating protein, fiber, vitamin, and calorie content. So, in order to better determine the nutritional content of your hay, you’ll need to have it tested. These are the basic categories for which hay is tested:

  • Protein
  • Sugars and starches
  • Minerals, including major and trace minerals

Grass hays are generally 6-12% protein while alfalfa hay can be up to 17-24% protein. Hay held over from the previous year tends to lose protein and moisture content. Remember, it’s protein that helps your horse to build muscle, enabling it to perform at higher levels.

The National Forage Testing Association was founded in 1984 as a joint effort of the American Forage and Grassland Councilthe National Hay Association, and forage testing laboratories in a concentrated effort to improve the accuracy of forage testing and build grower confidence in testing animal feeds. It provides a list of NFTA-certified laboratories that can perform the necessary tests. If you are unable to test the hay yourself, your local county extension office will have a hay core and be able to give you basic percentage numbers for the region. Keep in mind that this will be a general number for the area, not necessarily the hay that you are about to feed.

Keeping Hay

Now that you’ve found your hay, you need to keep it. Anyone with livestock, particularly large amounts of livestock, will keep large quantities of hay on hand. Buying in bulk just makes more sense.

  • If at all possible, keep hay in a dry, covered location. Hay sheds are ideal for this sort of thing as is an empty barn stall.
  • To avoid losing the bottom row of hay to rot or mold, lay down a row of old pallets and then stack the hay on top of the pallets. (See, you knew you’d been keeping them for a reason).
  • Remember that hay sheds can be a fire hazard. Keep that area as neat and tidy as possible to lessen the danger of fire.

As you can see, hay is not an easy topic. There are a lot of factors to be considered. In future blog posts regarding feeding practices, I’ll cover what you should do if the available feed does not have good nutritional content, grain, and what supplements you might consider using.


I talked to several people regarding this blog post, but I also did quite a bit of research. These sites were quite useful:

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