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All horse owners need to know about hay

Here's what to know about hay for horses.

Not all hay is created equal. While the forage is a staple in a horse's diet, there are varieties of hay with differing nutritional content. Be sure to talk with your vet or equine nutritionist before you choose which types of hays to feed your horse. 

Types of hay
Alfalfa is one of the most common types of hay, as it's used to aid digestion and horses like the taste. Nutritionally, alfalfa is rich in protein, energy, and vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, Bermuda is typically well-liked, but low-quality versions have been thought to cause impaction in horses. With a thicker, tougher stalk, oat is a hearty hay that can be higher in sugar, which is not a smart option for insulin-resistant animals. 

Clover is often mixed with grass hay and comes in red, crimson, white, alsike and landino. When it's dried, it often loses its green color. While this is normal, stay on the lookout for clover hay that becomes damp, as mold can make horses very sick. Tall Fescue is not recommended for pregnant mares, whereas timothy hay is easier on the digestive system. Fescue can sometimes lead to toxicosis, and should not be given to horses. Low in calcium and high in fiber, timothy tends to be a bit pricier, but horse owners who want to up the nutritional intake of their animals might opt for this high-nutrient feed. It is meant for aged animals, lactating mares and growing young horses. 

Best hay is clean hay
Despite what type of hay it is and where it comes from, the most important part is that it's clean. Hay that is dusty or moldy should never be fed to a horse, even if there is an insignificant amount of mold. If owners cannot get their hands on quality hay, the next best option may be cubed hay, since it is cleaner and has a lower chance on transmitting equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, which is a disease caused by a protozoal infection.

Furthermore, horses have different nutrient needs, and as such, they have different hay needs. Results vary widely from breed to breed. Hay that is appropriate for a 9-month-old thoroughbred may not be suitable for a mature Quarter Horse gelding.

Early maturity alfalfa is a great choice for growing horses and lactating mares. Generally speaking, late- or mid-maturity alfalfa or mid-maturity grass hays are appropriate for horses with low nutrient requirements. This option is also considered optimal because the horses can eat more hay to appease their appetites without getting too fat.

Hay variety Digestible energy (Mcal/lb) Crude protein (percent) Crude protein (percent) Calcium (percent) Phosphorus (percent)
Alfalfa 0.8 to 1.1 48 to 55 15 to 20 0.9 to 1.5 0.2 to 0.35
Red Clover 0.8 to 1.1 46 to 52 13 to 16 0.8 to 1.5 0.2 to 0.35
Orchardgrass 0.7 to 1.0 42 to 50 7 to 11 0.3 to 0.5 0.2 to 0.35
Timothy 0.7 to 1.0 42 to 50 7 to 11 0.3 to 0.5 0.2 to 0.35
Bermudagrass 0.7 to 1.0 42 to 50 6 to 11 0.25 to 0.4 0.15 to 0.3
Tall Fescue 0.6 to 0.9 40 to 48 5 to 9 0.3 to 0.5 0.2 to 0.35

Sources: National Research Council; UK Equine Nutrition Program

To determine how much to feed your horse, the rule of thumb to follow is that horses should consume 1 to 2 percent of their body weight each day in forage products. For owners with racing horses, it's easy to measure the exact quantity by standing on a bathroom scale, with and without the flake of hay, and subtracting the difference.

Problems with low-quality hay
According to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, diets with inadequate hay levels have been associated with increased incidences of stall vices such as wood chewing and cribbing. What's more, high grain intake may be a risk factor in equine colic.

In addition, horse owners should not stack hay too high because this increases intake of molds and dusts that can result in respiratory and potential oral health problems.

How to assess hay quality
You can generally identify quality hay based on its color; it should have a greener hue rather than yellow or brown. With that being said, some hays such as clover cure to a rather dark color, which is not necessarily an indicator of mold growth.  As The Horse points out, assessment doesn't have to be difficult. It can be done the old-fashioned way by breaking open a bale and scratching and sniffing it. If you drop a flake of hay from a few feet high, there should not be clouds of dust rising from it, as dust is typically an indicator that the grower had the tines of the harvester set too low.