How to Choose Hay for Your Horse

Contrary to popular belief, hay is not something that horses eat just to have something to do, or because it tastes good. In reality, hay is a source of important nutrients that horses need to stay happy and healthy, particularly performance horses who are expected to work & play hard for their owners. And just because you're feeding your horse hay doesn't mean that he's receiving adequate nutrients. There are many different types of hay, and you'll need to choose what to feed your horse.

At its most basic level, there are two main types of hay: grasses and legumes. Grass hays are more commonly found in the south, as many of them grow best in hot, dry weather. Legumes are more common in the north and need wet climates to prosper. The major difference between these two types of hay when it comes to horses, however, is the nutritional value.

The most common type of grass hay is coastal, which has a low level of nitrates, a higher level of fiber while maintaining a mid-level of proteins. Coastal hay is safe to feed in a free-choice situation as long as it is checked for mold and parasites. It lacks the high nitrate content of other grass hays, such as rye and fescue, which can lead to obesity and laminitis in horses. If you are going to feed your horse a grass hay, however, make sure that their grain has adequate protein to balance out the equation.

Many horse owners choose to feed their horses legume hays because they are more conducive to energy. For example, alfalfa (the most common of the legumes) has high levels of protein, calcium, phosphorous and zinc, which gives horses an energy boost. Alfalfa should be fed in moderation, however, because its high nutrient content can lead to colic and other stomach problems.

When choosing hay to feed your horse, talk with your local feed store to find out what is available. Grass hays, such as coastal and timothy, are generally less expensive than legumes, like alfalfa. They are also more readily available in certain areas of the country, which makes it easier to stick to a standard diet.

You can also talk with hay suppliers in your area to find out how different types of hay are grown and harvested. Hay that is allowed to mature longer will have a higher fiber content and will thus be more nutritionally viable. However, hay that is allowed to mature too long loses most of its protein content. It is also important to discontinue use of hay that has molded or is seeded with parasites that can cause intestinal damage in your horse.

When using a new provider of hay for your horse, examine each individual bale closely to look for dryness, mold, moisture, parasites and anything else that might hurt your horse. To store hay properly, make sure that it is under some type of shelter and that you monitor moistures levels to make sure that it doesn't combust. If you plan to move the bales yourself, use sufficient safety precautions to protect your back and arms from injury, as hay bales can be very heavy.

Whatever type of hay you choose to feed your horse, make sure it is balanced with the proper feed and supplement. For example, if you're feeding a hay that is low in protein, a protein supplement would be required to maintain your horse's nutritional balance. You can talk with your veterinarian or feed store owner to determine if your horse is sufficiently healthy.