Hay is For Horses

Photo by Adam Hill.

BY Emma Gosselin

A common saying I’m sure we’ve all heard from others in response to a shout of “Hey!”: “Hay is for horses, better for cows. Pigs don’t eat it, ‘cause they don’t know how!”

Upon walking into your local feed store, you’ll be faced with different types, cuts, and bales of hay. So, when they say “hay is for horses,” what exactly do they mean?

Equine Digestion

When it comes to feeding our four-legged friends, we only want the best for them. With so many schools of thought surrounding equine health and nutrition, it can become confusing very quickly. Horse digestive systems are considered non-ruminant and monogastric, meaning that they have a singular stomach with one compartment for breaking down and digesting food. Cattle on the other hand have four compartments to their stomach. Horses are also hindgut fermenters, which means their large intestine is important for breaking down the fiber that they consume throughout the day. With all of this in mind, the average horse stomach can only contain approximately 3-5 gallons worth of feed and water at one time, which is small in comparison to their bodies. 

When it comes to feeding, the amount of and types of forage fed should be dependent upon each unique horse. If you’re unsure where to start, a safe bet would be to feed your horse anywhere from 1 to 2 percent of his or her body weight in pounds of roughage per day. For your typical adult horse, consuming anywhere from 4-8 flakes of hay per day is considered average. This can vary depending on your horse’s access to turnout and amount of work they participate in.

An example of fresh pasture. Photo by Adam Hill.

Types of Forage

Forage options are not a one-size-fits-all ordeal. When determining what to feed your horse, options can range from fresh grass to forage supplements, and your horse’s needs can change based on a variety of factors. 

Fresh Pasture: This classifies as the grasses and other plants growing in your horse’s turnout space. Depending on your horse’s access to grass, they may need another type of forage to supplement their diet.

Alfalfa Hay: More caloric and protein dense than other types of hay, alfalfa is made from cutting and drying legumes in the pea family. Alfalfa contains 17-20% protein and 1-1.5% calcium, making it more nutrient rich than many other types of hay. This type of forage can also help to slow down sugar absorption into the blood, which makes it a viable option for horses with certain metabolic conditions. 

Timothy Hay: Containing 6-11% protein and less than 0.5% calcium, Timothy hay is another common option of forage for our equine companions. Highly palatable, Timothy is high in fiber without being high in protein and calcium, which makes it a great option for any horse to increase their fiber intake, which is crucial to their digestion. 

Orchard Hay: Another popular option, Orchard hay contains 7-11% protein and less than 0.5% calcium. Nutritionally similar to Timothy hay, Orchard hay tends to be softer, making it easily digestible for horses who may have digestive troubles or dental issues. 

Hay Alternatives: These can include chopped hay, hay cubes, hay pellets, and more. Optimally, horses should be eating a significant amount of long stem forage; however, hay alternatives are available to supplement their intake if needed. Oftentimes, hay alternatives may contain additives to make it more palatable or to provide nutrients similar to long stem forage, so be sure to double check the label if you have concerns!

Round bales are often created to be fed during turnout. They can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds! Photo by Adam Hill.

Aside from being categorized by what type of grass hay is made from, it can also be classified by first, second, or occasionally third cut. First cut hay is the first crop of the year, typically nutritionally sound for horses, and is more coarse than other cuts with lots of stems. Second cut is typically baled 6-8 weeks after the first cut. It is usually more green in color, leafy, and may contain more nutrients than first cut. Third cut hay will typically be the final hay crop of the season, and is very soft and leafy, but low in fiber. Third cut can be very enticing for picky eaters. 

Influences such as weather, soil quality, and pest infestations can affect each individual cut of hay. Keeping your horse’s activity level and individual needs in mind can help you choose an appropriate cut of hay to feed them. 

As always, when questions about your equine companion’s nutrition come about, connecting with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help you determine the correct path towards feeding your horse a sound diet and keeping a happy, healthy horse for years to come!