By Sharon Parry
Last Updated June 24, 2021

Horses are natural foragers but unless you have pristine all-year-round green pastures, they will need their diet supplemented with quality hay. Access to the right hay will support their digestive system as well as keep them happy and occupied, whether that’s in the barn or out in the field.

But one type doesn’t fit all, and so getting the right hay for your equine, their health and dietary needs is essential. We look at the best types of hay for horses that are widely available.

Why Choosing the Right Hay is Essential

A horse’s digestive system requires constant forage through grazing to ensure good health. Compared to other similar sized hooved animals, horses have a smaller stomach, with a normal-sized small intestine and a larger gut. This digestive set up means that when it comes to what do horses eat, they need to continuously graze rather than relying on one or two meals a day.

But the actual nutritional needs of a horse varies from animal to animal, and so should also take into account any health issues and allergies as well as their size/weight and workload. And that means choosing the right type of hay – for digestibility, energy and nutrients – and then the supplemental grains to match the specific needs of your individual horse. Here’s the lowdown on the main types of hay for horses you can buy.

The Two Main Types of Hay

When it comes to choosing hay for your horse there are two main types of hay you can buy – grass hay or legume hay. Grass hay is dried grass plants, whereas legume hay comes from the pea family. Both have their benefits as well as disadvantages which will help you decide which is the best to feed your horse. But whichever type and variety you choose, it is essential that you opt for the highest quality possible and ensure it is sweet-smelling, with no traces of excess dust or mold, before you give it to your horse.

Let’s look closer at each hay type and the different variants available so you can be sure of which type to feed your horse.

Grass hay      Legume hay
Lower in protein High in protein
Lower in energy Higher sugar content
Less nutrient dense High in calcium
Higher in fiber  More digestible nutrients

Grass hay

Made from mature, dried grass, this type of hay is widely available and is a good choice for many horses, as its bulky texture supports a horse’s natural pattern of slow grazing and digestion.

  • Benefits: While it may have lower protein and low sugar content than legume hay, grass hay is higher in fiber, which is essential for a healthy equine digestive system. And as it is less nutrient-dense, a horse will need to eat more grass hay to feel full, making it a good forage for horses – for example, stabled horses – who may get bored.
  • Disadvantages: As it offers a lower source of energy, grass hay alone may not be enough to sustain a horse, especially if they are in work, are not ‘good doers’ when it comes to maintaining weight and condition, are a young, growing horse or is a pregnant or lactating mare.
  • Best for: Horses in lighter work or retired/companion animals, ‘easy doers’ that maintain their weight.

Types of Grass Hay Available

The most popular grass hays for horses include:

Timothy Hay

Timothy hay is one of the most commonly used and a firm favorite with most horses and many horse owners. This variety has a finer texture than other grass hays and has a higher amount of protein, as well as a better balance of nutrients, including fiber and calcium. As a result, Timothy hay can also be amongst the most expensive.

To keep its nutrient levels, Timothy hay needs to be harvested early, typically in is pre or early bloom stage. However, when choosing Timothy hay bales for your horse, try and opt for a second rather than third cut as it will have less weeds while retaining its hay quality.

Orchardgrass Hay

Usually, with a thicker blade than Timothy hay, Orchard grass hay is softer in texture and is another popular type of grass hay. However, Orchard hay is lower in protein than Timothy hay so doesn’t provide as much energy. Orchard hay grows well in the cool season and varies in color, from light green to a dark greenish blue.

Bermuda Grass

Sometimes referred to as coastal hay, Bermuda grass hay is known to grow well in a range of weather conditions, and is one of the best cool season grasses, making it an easy hay to source and use. Made from a shorter plant, the hay has fine blades, and is lower in protein that other grass hays, so you need to ensure you are feeding it to your horse in sufficient amounts.

However, as it is widely available, Bermuda grass hay is also one of the cheapest and makes good forage, supplemented by hard feed to support your equine’s nutritional needs. It can also be supplemented with a legume hay, if your horse has higher energy and protein needs.

Oat Hay

To produce this nutritious hay, it is first cut between the milk and soft dough stage of the oat grass growing cycle. The result is a tasty hay that is high in protein as well as other essential nutrients, making it a good hay choice for many horses.

However, there are some caveats with oat hay – it tends to be high in sugar and so is not suitable for insulin resistant horses. The stalks can also be on the thick side, so you may find your picky equine may turn their nose up as it due to the tougher texture. And while it is nutritious, oat hay is known to be low in protein as well as containing only marginal calcium.

Fescue Hay

With long, broad stalks, fescue hay has a more palatable texture than many other grass hays, making it a good choice for horses which are more selective when it comes to their forage. As a warm season grass it is also low in sugar, as long as it is harvested as an early maturity hay. Left to the fall, and its sugar load can spike, so should only be fed to sugar sensitive horses with caution. And it should not be fed to pregnant or lactating mares as it can contain an endophyte fungal infection, if not tested.

Teff Hay

One of the most popular warm season grasses and thought to originate in Ethiopia, Teff hay is a versatile, high fiber forage crop to feed your horse. Fine-stemmed, highly palatable and fast growing, Teff hay for horses has more protein than many other grass hays, but still offers moderate calories as well as a low sugar content, making it an excellent all-rounder.

Legume Hay

Made from variants from the pea family, including alfalfa and clove, legume hay is higher in protein and calcium than grass hay, and provides more energy as well as more digestible nutrients.

Benefits: Legume hay is more palatable to horses, and so you will have less waste than grass hay! Its high mineral and protein content may also help to keep your horse hydrated by encouraging them to drink more.

Disadvantages: The higher calcium levels may mean you will need to add a mineral supplement to ensure the correct calcium and phosphorus ratio in your horse. Legume hay may also cause weight gain in easy-keeping horses or horses with low energy needs as it is rich in nutrients, and so calories.

Best for: Legume hay is most commonly fed to horses in regular work that require an energy and nutrient rich diet to sustain their activities, or lactating and pregnant mares as well as growing horses.

In the stable with horses in a equestrian center near russian city Kaluga.

Types of Legume Hay Available

The main legume hays for horses are:

Alfalfa Hay

Alfalfa hay is the most common legume hay consumed by horses as it is nutrient-rich, especially when it is first cut hay. Moreover, alfalfa hay is palatable and has a taste and texture most horses love. High in fiber, protein and calcium, alfalfa hay is however, also calorie-rich, providing around 120 percent more energy than oat hay. And this means you need less hay as you don’t need to feed as much alfalfa hay to get the same results.

Alfalfa hay is a high quality hay that makes good forage for active horses, and horses in regular work, as well as pregnant horses and youngsters. And, as it is relatively low in starch and sugar, it is a safe hay to give laminitis prone animals. But to get the phosphorus balance right, you will need to feed alfalfa alongside supplementary grains or brans. Its high energy content also means alfalfa hay may have to be restricted if your equine is older or prone to putting on weight as it can lead to colic. The best option for feeding alfalfa hay is to mix it with lower energy grass hay along with supplement feed to get the best of both worlds.

Clover Hays

There are five types of clover hays – red, white clover, sweet, alsike and yellow sweet clover – with red clover being the most popular.

Red clover hay has higher protein levels than grass hay, but not as much as alfalfa hay and is often fed mixed with other grasses for balanced nutrition, fiber and energy. The downside to red clover is that it can get moldy which can cause problems for your horse. The main issue with clover mold is that it can lead to excessive salivation, or slobbering. Fortunately, while unpleasant, this excessive salivation doesn’t actually harm your horse.

Birdsfoot Trefoil

A flowering perennial legume, birdsfoot trefoil is similar to clover hay but with more energy and takes its name from the way the seed heads form clusters which look like birds’ feet.

This type of legume hay is easy to digest and is nutrient rich, but the quantity you feed needs to be managed as it is also calorie rich. Birdsfoot Trefoil hay is best for working horses or mixed with other grass hays.

FAQs:

Q: Which hay is best for horses?

A: When it comes to what hay is best to feed horses, then that depends on the nutritional quality as well as the energy it can provide your equine. Some horses are unable to have high sugar hays due to conditions which cause insulin resistance, such as laminitis or colic.

Horses that are prone to weight gain, older horses or those currently out of work are best fed on grass hay or put on a restricted diet if fed legume hay as your need to be mindful of calorie intake as well as essential nutrients.

Considering hay production, the time the hay was cut in the season can also affect its nutrient and sugar content. For example, early first cut hay can contain more weeds but will be fiber rich. Meanwhile, third cut or late maturity hay harvested towards the end of the season will have less weeds as well as higher ratio of structural carbohydrates to non structural carbohydrates. This means it has fewer calories and will be harder to digest, so a good choice if your horse is an easy keeper or prone to weight gain.

Grass hay   Legume hay
Easy-keepers;   Horses in regular work;
Retired and companion Pregnant/lactating mares;
Horses      Foals and young horses

When choosing the type of hay for your horse, an appropriate legume/grass mix can also be a good compromise. Mixed hays should provide all the protein and energy benefits your horse needs, but with sufficient fiber to make their eating and digestion slower, meaning it will keep them occupied for longer as they forage.

However, no matter what type of hay or hay mix you choose, you should always go for the best quality hay you can. And this means the hay should:

  • be dry to the touch
  • free from mold
  • have a sweet smell and not musty
  • be in bales that are consistent in weight
  • have a healthy looking shade of green (light brown hay indicates it has sat too long in the sun to dry)

Q: What are the 4 categories of hay?

A: The four categories of hay available for horses are grass, legume, mixed and cereal grain, and each type has its pros and cons depending on your horse’s age, health, size, activity and nutritional needs. As we have seen, grass and legume hay are the most popular. Grass hay is typically made up from harvested grasses such as oat, rye and Timothy grass and is a high fiber forage. Legume hay is made from members of the pea family, with alfalfa and clover the most popular and nutritious.  Mixed hay is a combination of the two while grain or cereal hay is hay which has not had the cereal harvested and includes barley and wheat hay.

Q: What hay is bad for horses?

A: There are some hay types that are best avoided as they can cause health problems in horses and these include ryegrass, dallisgrass, Argentine bahiagrass, sorghum, switchgrass and foxtail millet. This means you need to take the right steps to find out the exact content of the hay bales you are buying before feeding to your horse.

Lawn clippings should also be avoided, even as a treat, as it can contain fungus, bacteria, fertilizers and herbicides which can cause illness, including diarrhea, colic and respiratory distress.

Aside from specific hay types as outlined, poor quality hay can also be bad for your horse, so it is important to check each bale as you open it to ensure it is in the best condition. This means hay that has too much moisture or is dusty or moldy should be disregarded and never fed to your horse

Q: What are the 2 main types of hay?

A: The two most popular types of hay used for horses in the US are Timothy hay and alfalfa. As a grass, Timothy hay has a balanced composition of protein, nutrients and fiber and has a finer texture that is palatable for horses and can be used for most horses, depending on their age and workload.

Alfalfa is the most popular legume hay and is nutrient and calorie rich, so an excellent forage for competition and working horses. It does, however, need to be fed with a hard feed to get a better nutritional balance and needs to be restricted if you horse is prone to putting on weight.

But as with most things in the equine care world, these two main types of hay are not necessarily suitable for all horses. If you are in any doubt as to your horse’s diet, or their health or workload means you need to adjust what forage you give them, do seek advice. An equine nutritionist will have invaluable knowledge and can help you ensure you are feeding hay that is appropriate and supplying your horse with the right diet to keep them happy and in the very best health.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Sharon is a Ph.D. scientist and experienced pet content writer. As a life-long animal lover, she now shares her family home with three rabbits, a Syrian hamster, and a Cockapoo puppy. She has a passion for researching accurate and credible information about pets and turning it into easy-to-understand articles that offer practical tips. When it comes to our furry friends, she knows that there is always something new to learn!

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