Published: April 2021 | Updated: August 2023
Forage is the most important part of any horse’s diet, and for many of our horses, it comes in the form of hay.
In this article, we’ll discuss seven different types of horse hay and why you might or might not want to feed them, with the understanding that what type of hay is best for horses will likely look different based on where you live and what you do with your horse.
To begin with, hay can be divided into two main categories: legume or grass; however, some hays contain a mixture of both. Legume hays are higher in protein, calcium, Vitamin A, and digestible energy when compared to grass hays, and while growing horses, pregnant/lactating mares, and equine athletes may need a higher energy source such as that provided by legume hays, many other mature horses do not.
Grass hay is typically lower in protein and energy but higher in fiber when compared to legume hay. However, high quality grass hay can sufficiently meet the majority of nutrient needs for many mature horses who aren’t in hard work. Grass hay can be further divided into cool or warm season grasses (depending on where they thrive), with cool season grasses typically being higher in sugar and energy content (as well as palatability) than warm season grasses.
The following are some of the most common types of horse hay:
We’ll begin with the warm season grass hays:
1) Coastal Bermudagrass
This type of hay is very popular in the southern U.S. The protein content of bermudagrass hay ranges from about 6-11%, and this type of hay is highly digestible. However, late-harvested (overly mature) bermudagrass hay has been associated with ileal impaction colic, so use caution when purchasing or feeding bermudagrass hay.
Bromegrass is highly palatable and has a nutrient content similar to bermudagrass. Since bromegrass matures later in the season when weather is less of a variable, it tends to be more consistent in nutritional value and carries less risk of getting moldy. Bromegrass is also a good choice for older horses that need softer hay.
3) Prairie Grass
Prairie grass hay is a mixture of native grasses grown in the Midwestern U.S. The protein content of prairie grass is typically between 6- 8%. This type of hay is known to be fairly low in nutrients, and the quality can vary depending on the grass species in the hay as well as when it was harvested.
Moving on, two popular cool season grass hays include:
Orchardgrass is typically grown in the northwestern and northeastern U.S. This type of hay is highly palatable and has a high nutrient content, making it a good choice for many horses. Orchardgrass also tends to be higher in crude protein (10-12%) and calorie content than most other grass hays, and it contains similar, balanced levels of calcium and phosphorus as Timothy grass. Orchardgrass is best if harvested in the early bloom stages.
5) Timothy Grass Hay
Timothy is a very popular and highly digestible grass hay. Quality Timothy grass contains a moderate amount of protein, usually around 8%, and it has a consistent and balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio, as well as moderate calorie content. Horses tend to like the taste of Timothy hay, but the main drawback of this type of hay is availability. Timothy grass usually only yields two cuttings per year and requires a substantial amount of water to grow.
The two most common legume hays for horses include:
Alfalfa hay is high in protein and calcium and low in sugar, making it the most popular form of legume hay. Most horses love alfalfa, but not all can tolerate it well. Alfalfa generally contains about 15-20% crude protein, making it one of the highest protein hays.
However, it is recommended that alfalfa not be fed as a horse’s sole forage ration due to an imbalance in calcium and phosphorus, the high protein content, and the fact that it’s been associated with enteroliths in horses. The general recommendation is that alfalfa make up no more than 20% of a horse’s total diet.
Clover is a highly palatable hay with a protein content usually running between 13-16%. There are several different types of clover used for hay, but red clover is the most popular. However one thing to keep in mind is that clover can be affected by a mold that causes horses to salivate excessively–giving them the “slobbers” so use caution when feeding this type of hay.
Hay Changes and Gut Health for Horses
Since forage is a horse’s natural food, a good quality, hay-based diet should keep your horse’s gut functioning smoothly. Feeding a combination of hays, such as legume and grass, can also be beneficial. However, when we change types or even batches of hay (such as buying from a new supplier), gastric upset can occur.
This happens because the bacteria in the horse’s hindgut become specific to fermenting whatever type of food a horse commonly eats and are therefore disrupted when a new type of hay or concentrate is suddenly introduced.
In instances such as this, probiotics can help. A high quality probiotic will help to combat “bad” pathogens and microbes in the hindgut and will also help to re-establish and strengthen the horse’s natural microbiome.
Choosing the right hay or combination of hays for your horse is important, but remember to make any feed changes slowly, over a period of 7-10 days. For added gut protection, supplement with a quality probiotic during this time period.