Aside from pasture, hay is the predominant forage consumed by horses. During certain times of the year, hay may be the only forage available and selecting the right type is an important part of formulating an appropriate diet for your horse. Remember, the general rule of thumb is to provide at least 1.5% of the horse’s bodyweight in forage per day. This works out to be 7.5kg per day for a 500kg horse. If pasture quality is poor or your horse has restricted access to grazing, the majority of their forage requirements will need to be met with adequate supplementary hay.
So, what is the right type? Well, sometimes the answer might be “what I can get my hands on” or “whatever my fussy horse will eat”! In Australia, drought conditions have sent hay prices skyrocketing and made it extremely difficult to source good quality hay, let alone different types.
The right hay for your horse will also depend on their body condition score, classification (e.g. breeding, growing, working, at maintenance), health issues and other components of their diet. Horses with health concerns such as insulin resistance do not tolerate high starch/sugar hay. Overweight good doers may need a lower quality, mature hay that has less calories.
Hay can be classified into four general types: legumes, grass, cereal and mixed.
Lucerne seems to have developed a bit of a bad reputation over the years. “Lucerne makes my horse NUTS” or “lucerne gives my horse the runs” are some common statements we hear. While some horses are intolerant of lucerne (which can happen with any feed ingredient), it is a valuable forage when fed to the right types of horses and in the right amount.
Advantages – High quality lucerne is very palatable and a good source of energy, protein and calcium. So, it can be useful in boosting these nutrients in the diet. The high energy content and digestibility of prime lucerne makes it a great addition to assist with weight maintenance. The protein is good quality, which means it’s high in essential amino acids.
Disadvantages – It’s those high levels of nutrients that make lucerne inappropriate as the sole source of forage in a horse’s diet. Feeding high quantities of lucerne can throw the calcium to phosphorus ratio out of balance and too much protein in the diet can be a problem for performance horses in training. Excess protein increases urinary ammonia production, which may result in respiratory problems for horses confined to a stable. High quantities of protein can also contribute to dehydration due to water loss through increased urine production. In addition, excess protein increases the amount of heat produced in the digestive system and can contribute to hyperthermia.
The caloric content and digestibility of prime lucerne should be taken into consideration when feeding good doers, as it can encourage significant weight gain. While lucerne is typically low in starch/sugar, overfeeding it to easy keepers or ponies can increase the risk of laminitis due to their propensity for obesity.
So, the key take home message is to feed lucerne in moderation. Haven’t we all heard that one before!? Use a grass or cereal hay to supply some of the horse’s roughage requirement. Also, if your horse develops diarrhoea when fed lucerne, try introducing it gradually over a couple of weeks to minimise digestive upset.
Grass hays are popular in Australia and generally contain a mixture of grass species. Grass hays can be high in energy and protein, but are generally not as high as legumes. In addition, poorly made or more fibrous grass hay is often not as palatable for horses. The sugar content of grass hay can be quite high, but is also variable. If you have a horse where sugar content is important, it’s advised to get the hay tested before feeding.
Advantages – Rhodes grass is a sub-tropical (C4) pasture species, but is low in oxalate. Bighead is therefore not an issue when feeding this type of hay (as long as the rest of the diet is balanced of course!). The GREAT thing about Rhodes grass hay is it more consistent and reliable in terms of the low starch and sugar content, which makes it a good choice for horses with health issues such as insulin resistance (IR). For IR horses, the guideline is starch and sugar (ethanol soluble carbohydrates; ESC) to be less than 10%.
Disadvantages – The digestibility of Rhodes grass hay declines rapidly as it matures, which is typical of all grass hays. Hay with more than 10 – 15% seed heads is considered inadequate.
Advantages – Teff is another C4 type grass that generates fairly reliable safe levels of starch and sugar. So, it appears to be suitable for laminitic horses and any other horses who need a restricted calories or starch/sugar diet.
Disadvantages – Teff does contain oxalate, which will reduce calcium absorption in the horse’s body and may lead to calcium deficiency. Teff hay also doesn’t contain very good quality protein and is low in trace minerals (like all forages). Lucerne can be a useful forage to feed alongside Teff, as it is similarly low in starch and sugar, will provide a source of high quality protein and help offset the calcium-binding properties of the oxalate in Teff.
Lower intakes of mature Teff hay can occur due to decreased palatability. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if your horse is on a restricted calorie diet and you want to slow their intake rate!
Finally, if you are competing it’s worthwhile being aware of the banned stimulant synethrine, which has been found in some Teff hay. While not all Teff hay contains synethrine, as it is likely a seasonal and regional issue, the EA advises that riders do not feed this type of hay to competition horses.
Ryegrass is another species that has poor reputation and for good reason! Perennial ryegrass staggers and annual ryegrass toxicosis are a cause for concern for horse owners. However, these issues do not apply to all varieties of ryegrass grown for hay. The most recent varieties are claimed to be safe for horses.
Ryegrass also has variable starch and sugar levels and can have a broad range of other nutrient levels. It is recommended to test the hay prior to feeding horses that require a low starch and sugar diet.
These types of hay typically consist of a mixture of different grass species. It’s impossible to comment on nutrient levels, as any combination of grass species can exist. Again, if feeding starch/sugar intolerant horses, it’s advised to get the hay tested.
Cereal hays are from the stems, leaves and grains of oaten, barley and wheat plants. A good quality cereal hay is harvested when the grain is immature (milk stage) and the leaves and stems are still green, which makes it higher in digestible nutrients.
Advantages – If harvested at the right time, cereal hay is very palatable to horses. This is partly related to its high sugar content. Oaten hay is the most common cereal hay fed. Barley or wheaten hay can also be fed to horses and if well-made can have a similar value to oaten hay.
Disadvantages – Due to the high sugar content, cereal hays are NOT suitable for IR/laminitis prone horses. The high sugar content can also cause horses to spend hours grazing on it, resulting in dental issues. Be aware of barley awns in more mature barley hay. Barley barbs can cause issues when they get stuck in the horse’s teeth and gums. If feeding barley hay, check that it has been baled young and is a beardless variety.
Don’t forget horses can’t digest plant fibre on their own… They need help from tiny little microbes in their gut!
Horses are completely reliant on the microorganisms in their hindgut to do the digestive work, producing enzymes that breakdown (ferment) the fibrous portion of their diet. This process produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which provide the horse with a source of energy. In fact, approximately 70% of the horse’s energy supply comes from VFAs! So, look after those microbes! Your horse can’t live without them.
Kelato’s digestive health supplements, GastroAID Recovery and GastroAID Everyday, contain specifically selected strains of prebiotics and live yeast probiotics to maintain a healthy hindgut environment, stimulate the growth of beneficial, fibre-fermenting microbes and enhance feed conversion efficiency. For more information, click the product images below.
No matter what type you feed, it’s important to select hay that is clean and free of dust and mould. When in doubt, consult with an equine nutritionist to determine the best type of hay for your horse’s individual requirements. Feel free to get in touch on 1800KELATO or email firstname.lastname@example.org.