Horses are grazing animals, and studies show that they perform best when they follow natural grazing patterns. The quantity of feed and time spent foraging for food are essential things to consider.
Harvested hays are the most substantial parts of horses’ diet. Choosing the suitable hay for a horse depends on where you live, your horse’s needs, and more. Unlike many other non-ruminant animals, horses have a relatively large gut and small intestine. Their digestive system makes them prefer continuous grazing to large meals once or twice daily.
Hay provides satisfaction and nutrients for horses. A horse must consume around two percent of its body mass daily to maintain digestive health and body weight. Different classes, workloads, and ages of horses require different nutrient levels from the hay they consume.
Grass Hay or Legume Hay? Which Is the Ideal Hay for Horses?
Many horse owners feed their horses with only a few hay types, depending on their location. However, horse owners feed their horses with a wide variety of hays in the US, including clover, coastal, orchard, rye, timothy, fescue, alfalfa, and many more.
For several horse owners, the ideal forage for horses is a combination of grass and legume hays. Each hay type is under one of these categories: grasses and legumes.
Alfalfa is the most common choice of legumes. Other types are birdsfoot trefoil, red clover, and white clover.
It’s suitable for every horse that requires a nutrient and energy-dense hay, including growing foals, lactating mares, or horses that require high-calories content. Horses that do substantial work require legume hays, which satisfy their forage needs and provide energy and calories.
Legumes contain more calcium and protein than grass hay. They also provide higher levels of digestible nutrients (like vitamin A) and more energy. Compared to grass, horses find alfalfa hay to be very palatable, so they rarely waste it. Its high mineral and protein content prompts horses to drink more, making them always hydrated.
You may need to balance the ratio of calcium to phosphorus by adding phosphorus mineral supplements. Also, the nutrients in legume hays may be too high for easy-keeping horses that are prone to being overweight, or retired horses that have lower energy needs.
Furthermore, red clover is nutrient-rich but may be infected by a fungus that causes excessive slobbering in horses (though not life-threatening). Also, it can quickly become dusty. Finally, as a result of the high content of calcium, alfalfa may cause enteroliths, particularly in susceptible horse breeds.
Common examples of grass hays are timothy hay, orchard grass, and Kentucky bluegrass.
It’s great for retired horses, horses involved in light work, and easy keepers and useful for helping to add roughage and buffer stomach acid without adding excess protein or calories. Bulky grass hays provide fewer nutrients and can mimic a horse’s pattern of processing fibrous food and grazing slowly through its digestive system.
Although grass hay isn’t as high in energy and protein as legume hay, it’s higher in fiber, hence, an excellent choice for several horses. Since it contains fewer nutrients than legume hays, horses eat more of it to fill their stomach, making it useful for preventing boredom in stall-bound horses.
You may require more than grass hays to sustain a lactating or pregnant mare, a growing foal, or a hard-keeping horse. Also, horses that perform heavy tasks will require more nutrients and energy than can be gotten from grass hays alone.
Identifying Quality Grass Hay
Choosing the best hay for your horse can be a daunting task. Here are some factors to help you identify high-quality hay.
Texture and Appearance
It should have a sizeable mix of leafy clover/grass. Stalky grasses with mature seed heads aren’t suitable for horses. Check for weeds or thistle and signs of mold. The baling of hay should be when the hay contains about 15 to 17 percent moisture.
Also, the hay shouldn’t be too coarse. Otherwise, your horse won’t feel comfortable eating it. Leaves and stalks should be flexible when touched. Check for leaf shatters (disintegration of a leaf when held), as affected hays generally have fewer nutrients.
Quality grassy hay is typically pale gold or pale green. If it’s brown or dull, it probably endured rain when drying. If it’s too golden, it was perhaps too dry while being cut. Ensure to check the center of the bale and access the hay color. The outer part of a bale may bleach and lose some vitamin A nutrients but retain most of the other nutrients.
Avoid hays that are musty, sharp, and almost metallic in smell. The smell indicates that mold may have infected the hay. Avoid dusty hays, as they’re not healthy for your horse’s digestive system or lungs.
Heavy hay implies that it’s too wet, and light hays indicate extreme dryness.
Stage/Age of Hay When Harvested
The age of hays when harvested largely determines their nutritional value. Early matured hays have more nutrients and are very leafy. Late maturity hays have fewer leaves and thick, coarse stems. As the hay ages, it’s no longer as digestible, palatable, or proteinous as it was at the beginning. The stem-to-leaf ratio increases, so the hay contains higher fiber. To obtain maximum nutrients, consider harvesting legumes as soon as a few flowers begin appearing. Harvest grasses when the seed heads start to appear. Harvest grain hay as soon as the grain reaches the soft-dough level.
Consider matching the hay type to its suited horse type. You can feed lactating mares and growing foals with early maturity hay, but it may not be the ideal option for horses that require low nutrients. Mid or late maturity hays are perfect for horses that need low nutrients, as the horses will eat more to fill their bellies without becoming fat or overeating.
Blister beetles can infect alfalfa hay. Feeding your horse with hays that contain blister beetles isn’t healthy, as a chemical from the beetles can cause fever, colic, and eventually death. Blister beetles are common in dry regions in the United States, where grasshoppers are prolific all year round. Sadly, there are no sampling methods for detecting the toxicity level of blister beetles in hays.