Evaluating your Horse's nutritional needs
Horses are herbivores by design and foragers by nature. They have
evolved to utilize grasses and other forage plants as their
primary source of nutrition. Horses are most content when they
can nibble almost constantly. Although it's not always possible
to let our domesticated friends graze to their hearts' content,
one way to satisfy their urge to chew and provide essential
nutrients is to feed high quality hay.
Hay generally falls into one of two categories -- grasses or
legumes. Horse hay is often a mixture of the two. What is readily
available and most cost effective generally depends on the part
of the country in which you live.
Hay's nutritive value and palatability (i.e. how much your horse
enjoys eating it) will depend on a number of factors, such as:
Level of Plant Maturity at Harvest
Growing Conditions (rain, weather, insects, disease)
Curing & Harvesting Conditions
Soil Conditions and Fertility
Length & Method of Storage
Alfalfa and clover are examples of legumes. Alfalfa is more
commonly fed as hay than is clover, although clover may be a
component of a mixed hay.
Legumes tend to be higher in protein, energy, calcium and vitamin
A than grass hays. This concentrated source of energy and protein
may be an advantage when fed as part of the ration for young,
growing horses, lactating mares, and performance athletes.
However, not all horses need the rich levels of nutrients present
in premium alfalfa. By buying a lower quality hay (such as an
early cutting or one harvested in a late stage of plant
maturity), or by selecting an alfalfa grass mix hay, you can get
alfalfa's dietary benefits without supplying excess nutrients
that may predispose young horses to problems such as
developmental bone disease and epiphysitis.
When feeding alfalfa, there is also a need to include a
palatable, high phosphorous mineral supplement as part of the
ration. Doing so will bring the calcium/ phosphorous ratio into a
better balance for the horse. This is especially important when
feeding young, growing horses. High phosphorous supplements are
commercially available just for this reason.
Due to alfalfa's high mineral content, your horse will likely
drink more water when being fed this legume. In turn, your
horse's stall will be wetter and require more care to keep it
clean, dry and ammonia-free.
Although grass hay is generally lower in protein and energy, and
higher in fiber than legume hay, this is, in part, what makes it
a good choice for many adult horses. It can satisfy the horse's
appetite and provide necessary roughage without excess calories
A good quality grass hay may meet most of the adult horse's basic
nutritional needs. Mature horses require 10% - 12% CP (crude
protein) in their diets. Many native or prairie grass hays
contain just 6-8 percent. A fortified grain concentrate can be
used to supplement the ration, increasing its energy, protein,
vitamin and mineral content.
Common varieties of grass used for horse hay include:
Prairie or Wild Native
MEETING NUTRITIONAL NEEDS
A horse's protein and energy requirements will depend on age,
stage of development, metabolism and workload. Choosing hay and
incorporating it into the ration should be done with the
individual's needs in mind.
Hay alone may not meet the total dietary requirements of young,
growing horses or those used for high levels of performance.
However, high quality hay may supply ample nutrition for less
active adult horses.
A mature horse will eat 2 to 2.5% of its body weight a day. For
optimum health, nutritionists recommend that at least half of
this should be roughage such as hay. For a 1000 pound horse, that
means at least 10 pounds of hay each day.
Most people buy hay based on how it looks, smells and feels.
These are "qualitative" factors, and they are important. When
appraising hay, keep in mind the following points:
It's what's inside that counts. Ask that one or several bales be
opened so you can evaluate the hay inside the bales. (Do not
worry about slight discoloration on the outside, especially in
Choose hay that is as fine-stemmed, green and leafy as possible,
and is soft to the touch.
Avoid hay that is overcured, excessively sun-bleached, or smells
moldy, musty, dusty or fermented.
Examine the leaves, stems and flowers or seed pods to determine
the level of maturity.
Select hay that has been harvested when the plants are in early
bloom (for legumes) or before seed heads have formed in grasses.
Avoid hay that contains significant amounts of weeds, dirt, trash
Examine hay for signs of insect infestation or disease. Be
especially careful to check for blister beetles in alfalfa. Ask
the grower about any potential problems in the region.
Reject bales that seem excessively heavy for their size or feel
warm to the touch. (They may contain excess moisture that could
cause mold, or worse, spontaneous combustion.)
When possible, purchase and feed hay within a year of harvest to
preserve its nutritional value.
Store hay in a dry, sheltered area out of the rain, snow and sun,
or cover in the stack to protect it from the elements.
When buying in quantity, have the hay analyzed by a certified
forage laboratory to determine its actual nutrient content.
QUANTITATIVE LABORATORY ANALYSIS
No matter how good hay might look, only through chemical analysis
can its actual nutrient value be determined. To test the hay,
core samples are taken from a number of bales within a stack and
combined. The forage laboratory then determines the following by
Dry Matter (DM)
Crude Protein (CP)
Crude Fiber (CF)
Minerals including calcium, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium
Crude protein (CP) and Crude Fiber (CF) are key to assessing the
hay's nutritional value. Some labs will break the fiber down into
two components -- acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral
detergent fiber (NDF) -- to better estimate its digestibility.
The forage lab might also recommend testing for other vitamins
and minerals. This is a good idea, especially if you live in an
area with known deficiencies or toxicities.
FEED WHAT YOU NEED
Remember, horses at different ages and stages of growth,
development and activity have different dietary requirements.
Consult your veterinarian or a qualified equine nutritionist when
formulating your horse's ration. He or she can help you put
together a balanced diet that utilizes hay, grain and supplements
in a safe, nutritious and cost effective way.