Ideally, mature horses should eat 1% of their weight in good quality horse hay every day – about 10 lb. Here’s what to look for when you’re sourcing this critical part of their ration!
What makes a horse owner happier than starting winter with a barn full of hay? Getting the right hay is important, though: you want quality forage for your dollars spent and avoiding poor quality horse hay is important, since it can be detrimental to their health.
“The most important factor determining hay quality is the stage of plant maturity at the time of harvest,” says Gina M. Fresquez, Purina Animal Nutrition. “Young, immature plants contain more nutrients than older, stemmier plants. After hay is harvested there are more factors to consider, particularly how it has been stored.”
Here’s what Fresquez and others recommend that you keep in mind when selecting good quality horse hay:
- High leaf to stem ratio. Look for more flat leaves in the hay and fewer round stems. This indicates the plant was less mature when cut. More leaves typically mean higher digestibility and nutrient content for your horse.
- Smaller diameter stems. Smaller stems also = better quality. To test, grab a handful of hay and squeeze. Good quality hay is soft and pliable; if it feels like a “bunch of sticks” it’s not a good choice.
- Few seed heads or blooms. Not matter the species of plant (grass), hay with little to no seed heads or blooms indicates a younger, early maturity plant and thus a higher-quality horse hay.
- Fresh smell and appearance. It’s very important to avoid musty, off-smelling (“fermented”) or moldy hay. This will reduce palatability at the very least and at worst can make your horse very ill.
- Cleanliness. Hay should primarily consist of the harvested forages. Of particular importance is low dust as it can aggravate breathing even in horses who don’t suffer from heaves. Hay containing dirt, weeds, insects,* trash or other foreign material is not suitable for horses. (*especially blister beetles!)
- Weight and temperature. Reject bales that seem excessively heavy for their size or feel warm to the touch. They could contain too much moisture, which can lead to mold and fermentation or worse, spontaneous combustion.
- Color. Good-quality hay should be bright green with little fading. A bleached-out yellow, brown or black color usually indicates aged, molded hay or poor storage conditions. Check the interior of a bale; slight exterior bleaching is okay. Storage condition and age have a significant effect on many essential vitamins and exposure to heat, sunlight and rain will speed up the loss of their biological activity.
Your horse’s protein and energy requirements depend on age, stage of development, metabolism and workload, but you want to keep forage as the primary part of his diet. When good quality horse hay is scarce or very costly, you may need to compensate. In some cases increasing the amount of forage fed to provide additional calories and nutrients may be adequate to meet your horse’s needs. In others, a good option is supplementing with a complete feed containing hay. Either way, you don’t want to skimp on forage, especially good quality horse hay!