For new horses owners or even people who have been around horses for a long time, the subject of horse nutrition can be daunting. The majority of a horse’s diet consists of roughage, such as hay and grass. A typical horse may consume 20 or more pounds of roughage per day. While some horses can meet this requirement in the pasture, most horses need supplemental hay, especially when stabled or during the winter. Therefore, it is wise to take some time to consider the types and quality of hay that would be best suited to your horse.

Types of Hay

There are two main types of hay: grass and legume.


Legume hays are higher in protein and nutrients than grass hays. They are highly palatable and provide horses with much higher energy content. Alfalfa is the most popular type of legume hay, but red clover, white clover, and birdsfoot trefoil are other options. Keep in mind that legume hay may be too rich for certain types of horses such as “easy keepers”, elderly horses, “hot” horses, and ponies. Use caution when feeding legume hay so as not to disrupt a horse’s calcium-phosphorous ratio. Legume hay is most suitable for performance horses, lactating mares, and horses with a high caloric requirement.


Grass hay is lower in protein and energy, but higher in fiber than legume. Horses need to eat more of this hay to meet their energy requirements, which makes is a good option for stabled horses, “easy keepers”, ponies, horses in light work, and horses prone to digestive upset. A diet of grass hay most closely mimics the diet of a horse out to pasture. For new horse owners, this type of hay is typically the best choice because there is less risk of feeding improperly and inducing colic or nutritional deficiency. Grass hays vary in different parts of the country, but examples include timothy, Bermuda, Kentucky bluegrass, and orchardgrass.

Quality of Hay

The quality of hay is just as important as the type of hay. There are a few questions you should ask yourself when evaluating hay. At what stage was the hay harvested? Hay that is overly mature can be coarse and nutrient-depleted. The first cutting of hay is almost always more mature, less nutritious, and contains more weeds than second or third cuts. How many leaves and stems are present? Damaged or overly dry hay will be mostly coarse stems. Look for hay with a higher leaf content for greater nutrition. Additionally, always check to make sure that the hay you purchase is free of dust, mold, bugs, and weeds, which could make your horse very ill in a number of ways. Good quality hay is a lovely shade of green, smells sweet, is supple to touch, and feels dense when lifted.

Written by Jada Pfeiffer

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