Series 1: Building a Balanced Diet- Hay

Howdy everyone! Welcome to Hay is for Horses, and our first blog post series!


Chances are at some point in your equestrian career you have had to build an equine diet. With so many choices in hay, grains, and supplements it can be so overwhelming! There’s thousands of different opinions and advice out there about what to feed your horse, but the real answer is that no one diet fits every horse or every location. Your six year old ranch horse in Colorado is going to need a much different diet than my thirteen year old jumper in Texas. In this series, I will dive deeper into each aspect of building a balanced diet. Instead of telling you what to feed your horse, I am going to set you up with a “toolbox” to create the diet that works best for you! In this series we will go over important aspects of hay, concentrates (grain) relative to activity level, and supplementation. To kick start this series, we are going to start with hay! As of course, Hay is for Horses!


The first thing in a balanced diet that you should look at is your horse’s forage, or hay. Balanced diets are said to be a “pyramid”. With forages and roughages making up the vast majority of an equine’s diet, then grain on the middle tear, and lastly a small part as supplements. This means that the bulk of your focus and effort should go into feeding a high quality hay/grass. Meaning you feed your horse at minimum 1% bodyweight in roughage (2% is more ideal). But how do you know what to look at when deciding what hay to buy for your horse? To a first time horse owner, it all looks the same, but in reality, there is so much variation within hay. Variation that can cause massive deficiencies in your horse’s diets. It’s important to understand what questions to ask your hay producer or feed store as you buy hay.

~Where to start~

Unless you live in a utopia of luxurious year-round green grass (if you do, please let me know where you live, so I can send Chrome there!) chances are a bulk majority of your forage comes from hay. The first thing you need to analyze when looking at your hay is the type of hay it is. Is it a legume or a grass hay? Is it the second or first cut? Was it stored properly? Did it come from a luxurious soil or soil that is stripped and depreciative of essential nutrients?

Firstly, you need to ask yourself if your hay is legume or grass hay. An example of legume hay would be alfalfa or clover. While grass hay would be your Bermuda, timothy, fescue, and orchard grass. Grass hays are typically referred to as “coastal hay” here in Texas and other coastal regions. Legume hays are typically higher in energy content, which means that they require a smaller volume to meet the nutritional requirements of a horse than a grass hay. This is because they have less fiber. Horses are hindgut fermenters. Which means the only part of the digestive system that is capable of breaking down and utilizing fiber, or hay, is the hind-gut, or the large intestine. Since this takes place past the majority of absorbent organs, most of these nutrients created by the large intestine are excreted. While microbe and hind-gut health is absolutely essential, and is a topic we will dive-deeper into in another post, the large intestine does not generate a lot of energy. Having less fiber means there are more nutrients that are digested and absorbed by the fore-gut; therefore, these nutrients are utilized more efficiently and provide more energy. Legumes also typically tend to be higher in calcium and protein concentrations. Grass hays typically have about 10% or less protein, while legume hays have about 15% or more.

*DE= Digestible Energy, measures digestibility of a hay

*CP= Crude Protein

Nextly, you need to look at the cutting of your hay. Cutting simply means when the hay was plowed from the field. First-cut means the first round of hay plowed from a field. First cut hay typically has more grass hay, which means it has less calcium/ protein, and more fiber. It is typically less green in appearance, and cheaper. Second cut hay is typically more legume hays, which means more calcium/protein, and less fiber. This is typically because first cut hay comes from plants that are more mature. As plants mature, they deposit more hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin into their stalk. All three of which are indigestible to horses, and are synthesized in the creation of fiber. First or second hay is not necessarily better than the other one. They just provide different nutritional requirements. Both can have their pros and cons. Grass hays are cheaper and can be feed at a higher rate for horses who put on weight quickly, but they have more fiber and less digestible energy. Legume hays have less fiber and more digestible energy. They can add weight quickly onto a underweight horse without having to be feed at high volumes, but it is expensive and can cause easy keepers to deposited weight quickly. Horse owners should look for hays that have no or limited weeds.

Additionally, you need to look at how the hay was stored prior to you purchasing it and how you stored it after it was purchased. Any hay is expected to lose a percentage of vitamins within the first 24 hours after cutting. This amount increases each day after cutting. Hay that was left exposed to the elements will suffer a greater loss compared to hay that is stored in a covered, dry environment away from the sun. In addition to nutrient loss, hay that is left in the rain will also be susceptible to mold. Hay that is left in the sun can also increase dust content. Both which can be very dangerous when being fed to horses. Protein and mineral concentration is typically quite stable.

Lastly, the soil in which your hay was grown. While there is no way to know exactly what the nutrients of your producer’s field are, unless you grow your own or they provide you with a soil report, you can get an idea by utilizing your local agriculture extension agency. They will have copies of soil reports that will give you a good idea of what to expect. Here in Texas, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension services has reports for each county as well as extension agents and offices all over the state that can assist you in retrieving this report. You tend to want a soil that is high in Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. You also want a soil pH of at least 5.8. Here in Texas, we will typically have higher soil pH due to the limestone in the ground. This will cause phosphorus to typically be deficient in forage only diets

With all of this in mind, there is no way to look at hay and know it’s nutritional content. The best way to know what you are feeding is to get a hay analysis. The Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Forage Laboratory offers forage samples, and has instructions on how to take a proper sample. Extension agents can also assist in educating horse owners on forage analysis. Another additional resource is Cumberland Valley Analytical Services (CVAS) that takes both domestic and international samples. Since forage analysis reports can be quite confusing to the average horse owner, I will create a post going over how to interpret these reports.

I hope you enjoyed our first blog post! Share a comment down below with your tips for looking for good quality hay or any questions you have!

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