There’s a reason the flippant phrase, “hay is for horses!” has found its way into popular conversation, even among non-horsey folk. Sure, it’s a funny way to tease someone who overuses the expression “hey” — but it’s also absolutely true. Hay IS for horses. As we’ve written countless times, forage is the number one best feed for horses.
For proof, look at the history of the horse. Long before humans came along and decided that it was much more convenient to feed horses once or twice a day in the barn, the dog-sized Dinohippus — the ancestor of our modern-day horses — spent all day grazing on grasslands. Since the prehistoric days, horses have gotten bigger and more domesticated— but little has changed about their dietary requirements.
Giving your horse unlimited access to grass is the best way to mimic your horse’s ancestors, but for many of us, that’s not practical year round. However, hay comes a very close second to grass — and may even be a better choice in some circumstances.
All Types of Forage are Good for Your Horse
Any type of forage — whether it’s grass, high-quality hay, chaff or chopped beet pulp — is highly beneficial to horses.
A healthy and appropriate diet contains six basic nutrients for health:
- carbohydrates (fibrous and nonfibrous)
- fats and fatty acids
- proteins/amino acids
Grass naturally contains all of the carbohydrates, protein and minerals a horse needs. Dried forage products, such as hay, chaff and beet pulp, are lacking in some of the vitamins and fats present in fresh grass — but that doesn’t mean that hay doesn’t have an integral place in your horse’s diet.
Feed Your Horse Hay for Better Nutrition
High-quality hay provides a slow-burning, low-carbohydrate, fiber-rich option for horses, making it an obvious choice. Always test your hay at your local agricultural extension to be sure it’s of high quality and meeting your horse’s nutritional needs. Once you’ve determined that you’re feeding high-quality forage, consider some of the reasons for making it a cornerstone of your horse’s diet.
- It’s convenient: According to a study by Penn State University, mature horses generally consume 2 to 2.5 percent of their body weight in feed each day. For an average-sized horse, that’s 20 to 25 pounds! For horse owners who live in northern climates or who don’t have access to 24/7 pasturing, hay fills a crucial gap.
- Hay is available year-round: Muddy pastures, blizzards or flies are no match for a hay bale fed in the shade or a protected shed or stall, making it possible for horses to get nutrition no matter the conditions.
- It’s easy to take on the road. Horses traveling frequently to shows can have access to high-quality nutrition regardless of location.
- You can feed hay when the fructan level is high in the spring. The sugar content in fresh grass is highest in the spring, making your horse more susceptible to colic and laminitis.
- Access to free-choice hay helps horses stay warmer in the winter time. The process of digestion provides additional heat during cold-weather months.
Feed Your Horse Hay for Better Digestion
Forage is clearly an important aspect of your horse’s nutrition plan. But it’s also crucial for a healthy digestive system.
Step 1: Biting and Chewing
Hay’s role in better digestion starts with the first bite — literally. Biting and chewing (or officially, “mastication”) breaks down food into small, digestible clumps. It also jump-starts saliva production, which further breaks down food and buffers the acids in the stomach for better digestion.
Step 2: In the Stomach
As a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate food, hay provides fiber, bulk and energy to the horse, keeping him full and satisfied. A full belly also alleviates the discomfort horses feel when their stomachs are too empty to buffer the natural stomach acids present in the stomach to break down food.
Step 3: In the Small Intestine
The small intestine is about 60-70 feet long, and is where most of the breakdown and absorption of feed occurs. Your horse gets more nutrition from food that takes a longer time to travel through the small intestine. Processed feeds like grain move through too quickly for absorption. Hay travels slowly, leaving behind nutrients critical for your horse’s health.
Step 4: In the Hindgut
The hindgut (or cecum, colon and rectum) is where fibrous foods like hay and other forages end up. The cecum and colon can hold up to 32 gallons of fibrous material, which slowly ferments over 2-3 days, resulting in volatile fatty acids that provide an important source of energy for the horse. Horses can meet up to 70 percent of their energy requirements through the fermentation of fiber in the hindgut. When horses are fed too much processed feed, it reaches the hindgut too quickly to be digested, sometimes leading to hindgut acidosis. When hay is your horse’s primary diet however, hindgut acidosis is rarely observed.
Some Horses Need More Than Just Hay
A forage-based diet is key for digestive health, and for the majority of horses, it’s the perfect diet to provide energy and stamina. However, For some horses performing at a very high level (such as sport horses or those being worked heavily, day after day), hay may not provide enough energy for sustained effort. It’s important to note that some vitamins and fats are destroyed by the environment once grass has been cut for hay. For this reason, other dried forage products, such as beet pulp or chaff, are also low in these nutrients. Providing access to fresh grass can help offset these deficiencies, but you may need to supplement forage with a grain or pellet mix designed to meet your horse’s specific needs. This chart from the National Research Council of the National Academies can help you estimate the nutrients your horse needs; or refer to our Nutrition for Horses series for additional information.
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