The Different Types of Hay for Horses
Components of Hay
Good quality, fresh hay, then, contains all the different nutrients your horse requires:
- Protein – used for growth and repair of tissues
- Carbohydrates – used for energy
- Fats – used to store energy and as insulation against cold
- Vitamins A, B complex, C, and E – used for a variety of metabolic processes
- Minerals, most importantly calcium and phosphorus, which are used predominantly for skeletal growth and maintenance
- Fibre – essential for function of the digestive system
The way in which types of hay differs is generally not in which nutrients they contain, but the proportions in which those nutrients are present. Nutrient density also varies from one cutting to another, so to really balance your horse’s diet, it’s best to have a hay sample tested to ensure you know exactly what’s in it. Many farmers will have this done as a matter of routine to check for quality.
A general baseline to check for hay quality is in the percentage of crude protein. An adult horse in moderate work only needs about 10% protein in his diet, while growing, performance and breeding horses will need more.
Types of Hay
Clover hay is very similar to alfalfa, with a very high protein content and excellent palatability. Its
Ca:P ratio is also generally unbalanced, but the advantage of clover hay is that clover is usually planted alongside grass and then cut and baled with the grass hay, so the two hays are already mixed. This boosts the quality of a grass hay crop and eliminates the fuss of having to feed two different hays to your horse. However, some sneaky horses will pick out all the clover and leave the grass, so you have to keep a close eye on your horse’s intake.
Types of grass hay vary across the world, but in the US, timothy hay is by far the most popular. Good quality timothy is up to 10% protein, which is sufficient for most horses. It is high in fibre and thus optimises the horse’s digestive system while supplying a moderate amount of carbohydrates. Good quality, green timothy hay is also rich in well-balanced vitamins and minerals. Bermuda grass and orchard hays are very similar to timothy hay and can be fed almost interchangeably according to what’s available – and cheaper – in your area. Timothy hay is a safe bet, but almost always more expensive than bermuda grass or orchard hay. The only real disadvantage of these grass hays is that they do not contain enough carbohydrates and protein for performance or breeding horses, so must be supplemented with alfalfa or concentrate feed. Later in the season when the hay has lost its greenness, it may also be low in vitamins and minerals, so a balancer may need to be fed.
Another type of grass hay is oat hay. This hay has a similar protein content to other grass hays, but is significantly higher in carbohydrates. For a skinny horse who needs to pack on some pounds or a performance horse who needs some extra energy, oat hay can be great, but it is disastrous to feed to insulin resistant, overweight, or laminitic horses. It may also cause some horses to become hot and unmanageable to ride.