FAQ Horse Care Tips

Horse Hay FAQs: List of Types of Hay, What Hay is Best, etc.

horse-hay-faqs
Written by Horse Rookie

Yes, horses eat hay. But, knowing how to feed hay is more complicated than you might think.

When you’re first starting out with horses, the topic of hay can seem overwhelming. With so many varieties out there, newbie horse owners can feel paralyzed by choice–and the potential implications on their horses’ health.

Do horses really need hay? How much do you REALLY know about this equine dietary staple? Do you know what makes a good bale or how much you should give your horse? This article walks you through: 

If you want to learn even more about feeding horses, check out our articles on Food or Foe: What Do Horses Eat (And Why) and Fact or Fiction: Do Horses Eat Meat?

Horse Hay 101: List of Types of Hay

Hay can be broken down into two main categories: grass (e.g. Timothy, Fescue) and legume (e.g. Alfalfa, Clover).

Grass hay is exactly what it sounds like – a long, stemmy plant – while legumes are members of the pea family and are shorter, leafier plants.

best-horse-hay

Source: Canva

Grass hay is:

  • Lower in protein
  • Lower in energy
  • Less nutrient dense
  • Higher in fiber

Legume hay is:

  • Higher in protein
  • Higher in energy
  • Higher in calcium
  • More nutrient dense
  • Encourages water consumption
  • Extra delicious (to a horse, at least!)

Pro Tip: Because of its nutrient ratios, legume hay should not be the only thing your horse eats. Most people mix legume hay with grass hay for added energy and protein.

List of Types of Hay

So, how many types of hay are out there? A lot!

Here’s a list of the most common hays found in the United States (alphabetical order):

Alfalfa:

This is by far the most common legume used as hay for horses. The best alfalfa is cut on the early side, and horses LOVE to eat it!

Alfalfa has lots of nutrients, so many people feed a mix of alfalfa and grass hay. Be aware that Alfalfa is really high in protein and calcium, so it’s not always suitable to be fed as the sole hay. Adjust as needed to balance nutrients.

Too much Alfalfa can also lead to the formation of Enteroliths (i.e. small stone-like formations in the colon that can cause colic).

Alfalfa comes in various forms, from bales to pellets to cubes.

Bahiagrass:

This grass hails from the southern coastal plains. It’s typically found in pastures, so the stuff they make into hay is not that great for horses. Overly mature Bahiagrass hay can cause ergot poisoning, so buyer beware.

However, if it was grown for hay and harvested correctly, it’s similar to Coastal hay.

Bermudagrass (“Coastal”):

This is a popular choice for those living in the southern United States.

It’s pretty similar, nutritionally, to Timothy hay. Some people blame poorer quality versions for impaction colic, but good quality Bermudagrass is very digestible and safe.

Birdsfoot Trefoil:

Think of this like a higher-energy clover.

Bluestem:

This grass is common in the central plains. It comes in “Big” or “Little” varieties.

It’s pretty yummy, but it generally has more fiber than similar quality Timothy or Bermudagrass.

Bluestem Grass

Source: Canva

Bromegrass:

Smooth bromegrass is often fed to horses and grows well in the Great Plains. It’s delicious and nutritious, so it’s potentially a good option for your horse.

Cereal Grasses:

Cereal grasses include barley, oats, rye, and wheat. You can cut and harvest those crops early, and they can make okay hay.

That’s it though – just okay. Generally, these grasses are cut late and are referred to as straw. They’ll be yellow/gold in color and contain very few nutrients. Straw makes for good bedding, and is great for donkey feed, but generally  not fed to horses.

Fescue:

Live in the midwest and southeast United States? You’re probably in fescue up to your ears! It’s all over the lawns and pastures.

That said, it’s NOT safe for broodmares, as it can cause abortion, lack of milk production, thick placentas, and late births. (This is due to an endophyte that lives in the fescue.)

You can buy fescue seed that’s endophyte-free, but you need to make sure your hay wasn’t made from infected grass. If you’re not feeding broodmares, it can make perfectly decent hay.

Kentucky Bluegrass:

This famous grass is more common in Mideast states, particularly (you guessed it) Kentucky. It’s not particularly popular because it matures late and has a pretty low yield.

Kleingrass:

STOP. NO. Even if you find “high quality” Kleingrass hay, it can cause liver damage in horses. Best to leave this stuff for the cows!

Lespedeza:

This legume has the least amount of protein and energy, but it grows well in some parts of the United States and can be an acceptable roughage.

Orchardgrass:

This grass can be nutritious and tasty if cut at the right time. It’s pretty common to find and makes another great option for horses.

Perennial Peanut:

Contrary to the name, this is not the leftovers from harvesting peanuts. It’s actually a legume grown in the south for pasture and hay production.

Nutritionally, it’s similar to alfalfa.

Prairie grass:

This is generally a mix of native grasses and is common in the Midwest and West. It can be a decent enough hay, but since it’s a mix of different species, the nutrient content can vary greatly. Make sure to test this hay before feeding it (tips on that below).

Also, be on the lookout for literal trash and other weird things, since some Prairie grass hay was harvested along the median of highways.

Red Clover:

This variety is higher in protein than grass but lower than Alfalfa. Clover can cause excess slobber and other problems, particularly if it got moldy or wasn’t cured properly.

Red Clover

Source: Canva

Ryegrass:

Usually used for winter grazing in the south. Rye may make good hay if harvested correctly, but in general, it’s pretty lousy. (We’d pass on it!)

Sorghum (“Sudangrass” or “Johnsongrass”):

Though it goes by many names, you only need to remember one word: NOPE! This hay is generally pretty gross (according to horses), and some may contain toxic levels of prussic acid.

It’s hard to make this grass hay safe for horses, so don’t risk it.

Tifton:

This is actually a type of Bermudagrass. Not much research has been done about using it as hay for horses, but it is typically seen as a less delicious version of Coastal hay.

Timothy:

The best Timothy hay comes from the northern United States. It’s pretty average as far as the nutrient content but most horses think it’s delicious.

This is a great choice for the average horse owner.

Wheatgrass:

This grass is common in northern pastures, but if you want it for hay make sure it was cut early.

As this grass matures, the quality quickly drops. A late cut means you’ll end up with junky hay.

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Want to learn more about how to feed horses in the cold months? Check out Winter Hay 101: How Much to Feed Your Horse.

Selecting a Hay Type

How do you pick good hay for your horse? Ideally, start with what your horse is already eating and go from there.

Never make a sudden diet change when feeding horses.

selecting-hay-type

Source: Canva

Consider what your horse needs from a nutritional perspective (or ask your trainer or vet).

How large is your horse? Is it a hard or easy keeper? (A hard keeper is a horse with difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.) What sort of workload does your horse have? What kind of hay is available in your area?

An adult horse that is simply maintaining body weight can probably eat only grass hay. If you are competing in endurance, for example, you would likely choose a mix of grass and legume hay (and some grain).

Pro Tip: Horses can burn more calories than they can physically process from pasture or hay, so ask your vet for advice if your horse is in consistent work.

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Picking Out Bales

Hay comes in a few different “forms.” The most common are small square bales, large square bales, and round bales. Large square bales and round bales can be very heavy and require machinery to move.

Horses also have a tendency to waste hay from round bales by scattering it.

Most Horses Waste Hay Messing it Around

Source: Canva

When you’re looking at bales of hay for sale, one of the first things to look at is color. Hay can range from green to yellow/brown.

Since exposure to light and other environmental conditions can alter the appearance of hay, you should break open a couple of bales from different locations before committing to a purchase.

Remember that color is not the be-all and end-all of hay. It’s one consideration and offers a clue about how well the hay was cut and baled.

Green hay was likely cut, dried, and baled at the optimal time and has more nutrient preservation than yellow hay.

You should also shake a few handfuls of hay to observe how much dust flies off. All hay will have some dust, but if you wave it around and it gets so dusty you expect a high school football team to come bursting through it, we’d pass on it.

You should also look for signs of mold, the presence of blister beetles or other pests, weird growths, or noxious weeds. NEVER feed moldy hay to horses! When in doubt, throw it out. Even at $19/bale, you’re better off playing it safe to avoid colic and an emergency vet bill.

If everything looks good, stick your face in the hay and take a big sniff. Seriously. Good hay should smell good, while bad hay will smell… bad. Hay also gains a distinct smell if it was baled wet.

If the hay is giving off a delicate scent reminiscent of tea that’s a great sign! If it smells acrid or strange it may be moldy. 

It’s also a good idea to recognize the differences in types of grass. Sometimes hay is labeled as one type, but is actually a mix. Or, sometimes Orchardgrass gets sold as Timothy because most buyers can’t tell the difference. But your horse probably can.

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Is your horse pushy at mealtimes? Check out our 6 Easy Clicker Training Exercises for Horses for useful behavior correction tips. 

Hay Testing

Now that you’ve found what appears to be a good hay, you may want to get it tested. Smart decision!

The only way to really know the nutritional content of hay is to test it.

Click to pick up a hay bale sampler at Amazon.

Testing hay typically costs around $10, but it’s well worth it for the peace of mind. Here’s how to do it:

  • Step 1: Buy a hay probe (“hay sampler”). We like this one at Amazon since it won’t break the bank, and it’ll be at your door in two days.
  • Step 2: Pick out 15-20 random hay bales from one lot.
  • Step 3: Take a sample that’s 12-18 inches deep and at least 3/8” wide from each selected bale.
  • Step 4: Place all of the samples together in a sealed plastic bag. Keep it in a cool, dry place.
  • Step 5: Send it in!

Pro Tip: Where do you send hay samples? Contact your local extension office for more information, or ask your trainer or vet who tests hay in your area.

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Horse Hay Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why do horses eat hay?

Domesticated horses eat hay because they are managed by humans. Wild horses obviously do not require hay.

If you want to learn more about horse feeding, check out our article about Food or Foe: What Do Horses Eat (And Why)?

Common reasons to feed hay include:

  • Inclement weather (snow, mud, rain)
  • Lack of pasture (either due to space constraints or during winter when pastures aren’t growing)
  • Travel (hay is great to keep horses happy during trailer rides)
  • Nutritional needs (easy keepers or horses prone to laminitis that would otherwise be out on high-sugar pastures)

Q: How do horses digest hay?

Horses start by chewing the hay to break it apart into more manageable pieces. Then, it travels to their stomach where the hay is liquified so that the intestines can really get to work.

Horse stomachs are designed to always be working and producing acid.

If the stomach sits empty too long, horses run the risk of developing ulcers.

Here are a few fun facts:

  • The small intestine works on digesting the hay before it lands in the cecum.
  • Horses are hindgut fermenters, which means they use their cecum (and colon!) to ferment tough fiber.
  • Horses have billions of microorganisms that produce enzymes vital to breaking down the normally indigestible parts of hay.
  • Everything that can’t be processed by microbes or the horse’s body comes out the other end.

Q: What can I do with leftover hay?

Leftover hay has lots of great uses. Getting ready to seed a new field? Save that old hay to cover the seeds.

You can also use leftover hay as mulch. It will suppress weeds and help retain moisture. As it slowly breaks down, it will add fresh, organic matter to your soil.

Interested in composting your manure? Add your spoiled hay to the pile. If you regularly have leftover hay, check with local farmers. They love organic matter and some even use it to fill in pig manure holes every fall.

Q: Can you feed hay straight off the field?

Under the right circumstances, yes, but it’s better to give the hay time to cure (or dry out) before feeding it.

If the moisture content is below 12%, it’s safe to feed fresh from the field. A lot of that depends on how dry the fields are when the farmers bale the hay. If it rained recently, it’s better to let the hay cure for two to four weeks first.

Whether your hay is fresh or has been sitting, always check it for heat, moisture, and mold before feeding it to your horse.

Can You Feed Hay Off the Field?

Source: Canva

Q: What hay is best for horses?

The best hay for horses depends entirely on the horse. Timothy grass hay is very popular, but there are many other options available.

You might choose to mix in legume hay for extra protein, or you might pick a less nutrient-rich grass hay for a super easy keeper.

Return to our list of hay types for more details.

Q: Should you soak hay before feeding it to horses?

Some horses benefit from having their hay soaked before eating it. Horses that are allergic to the dust in hay, will experience fewer symptoms eating soaked hay. Horses that need a low-sugar diet will also benefit, as soaking helps remove excess sugars. 

You can find out more by reading How to Soak Hay for Horses (And Why Bother!).

Q: How many bales of hay does a horse eat a day? Per month?

Horses eat 2-2.5% of their body weight every day, mostly in roughage. So, a 1,000-pound horse should eat about 20-25 pounds of roughage.

The amount of hay they need will decrease if they are given access to pasture and if they are eating any grain or other feed. This will also vary according to their workload and individual metabolism.

Hay bales can vary pretty wildly in weight, so you need to weigh your hay to know if you’re feeding your horse correctly.

A “flake” of hay is not an accurate or consistent measurement.

If you purchase 50-pound bales, your horse may eat half a bale per day. This would be around 28 bales every 4 weeks.

You can also get a sense of the annual cost of hay in our blog Estimate Your Average Horse Cost (State by State).

Q: How much hay do you need to feed a horse in winter?

This depends entirely on your pasture access and climate. If you have access to grassy fields year-round, you may not need any hay in the winter.

If you have three solid months of snow and mud, with no grass, you may need to supplement your horse’s entire diet with hay over the winter.

Depending on the quality of hay and the weight of your hay bales, you could be feeding around half a bale per day in the winter.

Horses Need More Hay in Winter

Source: Canva

Q: What is the best hay for horses in the winter?

The best hay for your horse over winter is the one that is available, that was cut and stored correctly, that offers adequate, balanced nutrients, that your horse wants to eat, and that you can afford.

Simple, right?

Keep in mind that you don’t want to make any sudden, drastic changes in your horse’s diet, so you’ll want to stock up before it gets cold.

Return to our list of hay types for more details, or check out Winter Hay 101: How Much to Feed Your Horse (And Why)

Q: Should horses have hay all the time?

If you don’t have enough pasture or your horse has a medical condition that limits the amount of pasture grass they can eat, ideally, they should have constant or nearly constant access to hay.

Horses digestive systems were designed to be constantly processing forage, so it’s risky to let them sit empty.

You will likely need some sort of slow-feeding method to prevent the horse from overindulging out of boredom, or you will need to space out feedings throughout the day.

Q: Can a horse overeat hay?

They sure can! Chances are, if your horse doesn’t have a pasture to wander and is standing in a dry lot or stall, they’ll get bored. When horses get bored, they want to be entertained.

If the only thing they have to entertain themselves is food then they’ll spend their time eating, whether or not they need the calories.

If your horse is in this situation it is best to find a slow-feeding option, like a hay net, to slow down their consumption.

Q: What are the best horse hay feeders?

Many people just drop the hay on the ground, but if you want to slow your horse down, keep the hay clean, or reduce waste there are several options.

Our favorites include:

  • Hay Nets: Hay nets are very popular because they hold hay up off the dirt/bedding and slow the horse down so that they spend more time pulling the hay out instead of scarfing down mouthfuls. Weaver Leather makes a simple and inexpensive hay net (see it at Amazon) that can be hung on a fence, in a stall, or in your trailer.
  • Pasture Feeders: There are other feeders available for pastures that keep hay contained and covered so that multiple horses can eat at the same time and the hay is protected from the weather. Texas Haynet offers a slow-feed round bale net at Amazon. It fits 4×5, 5×5, 6×6 round bales, as well as 3x3x8 large square bales.

Q: What are the best horse hay nets?

There are many different options for hay nets, depending on your needs.

Most standard-sized horses need 2” holes to prevent frustration. Durable hay nets are a must, because they will get a lot of use, and horses are talented at destroying things.

Click to see the Tough 1 hay bag with shoulder strap at Amazon

Here are a few of the best hay nets available at Amazon:

Q: What is the best quality hay for horses?

For the average pleasure horse, high-quality grass hay is ideal. Timothy, Orchard, or Coastal are all great options.

Return to our list of hay types for more details.

Q: What type of hay do horses eat?

Horses eat grass, legume, or mixed grass and legume hay.

Return to our list of hay types for more details.

Q: Is Timothy hay good for horses?

Timothy hay is a great option for many horses. Horses usually find it delicious, it’s very digestible, and it has a great fiber content to keep their guts working properly. It requires lots of chewing, so it’s also a great boredom buster.

Return to our list of hay types for more details.

Q: Is Bluestem hay good for horses?

Bluestem hay is fine for horses. It tends to have more fiber than other types of grass hay.

Note: Some horses find it palatable, but others would “rather starve.”

Return to our list of hay types for more details.

Q: Can horses eat freshly baled hay?

If hay is baled correctly, with a low moisture content of less than 12%, then yes. If the hay was baled with too much moisture, it can be dangerous.

Oftentimes people will allow wet hay to go through a curing process for a couple of weeks, but it is dangerous to feed it to horses during this time. Hay that is baled too wet also runs the risk of catching on fire or growing dangerous mold.

Q: Which cutting of hay is best for horses?

The cutting of hay doesn’t matter nearly as much as other factors – like species, maturity at harvest, storage conditions, leafiness, and the presence of contaminants.

You will often hear people tell you that the second cutting is best since the first cuttings can have seed heads and the third cuttings have less nutrients and more fiber.

But, these characteristics do not make or break hay. Second-cutting hay that was improperly stored is way worse than third-cutting hay that was handled well.

The Cutting of Hay Isn't As Important

Source: Canva

Q: What is the best horse hay mix?

The ideal mix of hay for your horse will depend on your horse’s nutritional requirements.

Timothy-Alfalfa, Orchardgrass-Alfalfa, and Timothy-Orchardgrass-Alfalfa mixes are very popular since they have the added energy boost of a legume.

Q: What is the best horse hay seed mixture?

If you are planting fields for hay production, you will need to contact your local extension office for more information. The best hay seed mix will depend entirely on your climate and soil conditions.

Q: What can you feed horses instead of hay?

If your horse can’t eat hay, like a senior horse with no teeth, there are other options.

You can purchase bags of chopped forage, hay cubes or pellets, beet pulp, or a “complete feed.” Complete feeds contain all the nutrients your horse needs, including fiber.

Q: Why should you worry about identifying foxtail in hay?

Foxtail is a type of grass with long stems and seed pods at the tip that resemble a fox’s tail or hairy caterpillar.

It may look mundane to the naked eye, but the seed pods have thistles and are coated with microscopic barbs. If consumed, the barbs can get stuck in your horse’s muzzle, gums, and tongue and cause painful mouth sores and ulcers.

This is another reason to double-check hay quality before you purchase from a supplier.

You can learn more by reading Foxtail in Horses: Removal & Treatment by EquineHelper.com.

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(Good) Hay is for Horses

Hay selection can seem complicated, but when you start to eliminate certain varieties that don’t suit your location or horse’s needs, it quickly becomes a lot simpler. Pick something readily available in your area, inspect and test it, and you’ll be all set.

Remember, when in doubt ask your veterinarian for advice!

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About the author

I began riding horses at age six, and I'm just as infatuated (OK, more!) with the sport decades later. My AQHA gelding exemplifies the versatility of the breed -- reined cow horse, reining, roping, ranch riding, trail, dressage, and jumping. We're also dipping our toes (hooves) into Working Equitation!