Hay selection is an important aspect of horse ownership. The type and quality of hay the horse eats can make a big difference in its overall nutrition, and its value in a horse’s diet is unquestionable. The extra dollars spent on sourcing good-quality hay and its proper storage is invariably cost effective on many levels including reduced veterinary costs, minimal supplementation and lessened waste.
Although the nutritional demands of individual horses may vary, good-quality grass hays will adequately serve the basic nutritional needs across all classes of horses. Nature itself does not sort the horse into nutritional “groupings.” Any necessary adjustments to the diet of an individual animal or grouping of horses are best made “in addition” to a strong foundation of good-quality forage.
Regional availability ultimately determines what hay is obtainable. However, it is helpful for the horse owner to know about the different types of hay available and be able to identify the stage of maturity of the hay and assess its physical qualities. These characteristics influence the nutritional value of the hay.
Hay is generally classified into three types: 1) Grass hays such as timothy, orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass and fescues; 2) Legumes such as alfalfa and clovers; and 3) Mixed hays which are usually a combination of grasses and legumes. Information regarding the plant type and stage of maturity is easily attainable by identifying the characteristics of the stem and leaves and the nature and number of seed heads. Weed identification is also important — although a few stray weeds often find their way into the hay crop, they need to be the exception.
The gold standard
Timothy is considered the gold standard among grass hays because of its high palatability, easy digestibility and low-energy yet nutritious profile. Low-energy or energy-sparse forages for horses are not to be confused with a poor-quality diet or diets of low nutritional value. The need and importance for continuous access to fibrous forage and “bulk” in a horse’s diet across all age groups and disciplines is considerable since it mimics the horse’s natural pattern of trickle feeding.
Alfalfa is the most popular legume hay and like grains in the horse’s diet, is ideally used strategically to complement the nutrient profile for certain classes of horses in a particular life stage, physiologic state or under a workload.
Our own senses are wonderful tools for making informed choices about hay. Choose hay that is as fine stemmed, green and as leafy as possible. This hay will be soft to the touch, flexible, and have a sweet scent. Leafiness is a mark of high quality because the leaves are more digestible than stems and provide more nutrition. Hay is easier to digest and more nutritious when it’s harvested at the vegetative or pre-bloom stage, before the plants mature, flower and form seeds. Thick coarse stems and plenty of large seed heads in grass hay or flowers in legume hay indicate that the plants were harvested in a mature stage. Often this hay crop is less palatable, less digestible and provides less nutrition.
However, older mature hays with their lower caloric value can often be a good fit for the easy-keeping horse or those struggling with insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome or chronic laminitis. These horses have trouble processing the non-structural carbohydrates (sugars and starches) in the hay. The only way to know for sure the sugar and starch content of these hays is to have an equine forage analysis done.
Hays that are pale and faded can indicate that the crop was bleached and/or weathered by the sun, leached by rain or possibly the crop is of later maturity. One or two rainfalls are not too detrimental to the nutritional quality of the crop and in fact may even be advantageous to horses that are sensitive to sugars because the rain has a tendency to wash them out. Hays that are dark brown or black have at some point had too much moisture and have been spoilt. Hays that have a bluish-coloured tinge come from heavily fertilized soils and have too much nitrogen. They will likely have a bitter taste which many horses don’t readily prefer.
The nose knows
The smell of good-quality hay is crisp, clean and refreshing. If airborne particles are released when the hay is shaken it usually indicates the hay is mouldy or dusty. Even if the amount of mould or dust appears minor, these hays are best avoided since both dust and mould trigger inflammation of the equine respiratory tract. Hay that is baled too wet will usually be heavy, smell musty or may have a distinct sweet smell that results from caramelization of the sugars. The quality of these hays deteriorates quickly and they are prone to mould.
Many hay producers will have a complete forage analysis readily available upon request. Ideally the hay’s protein content will range between eight and 12 per cent and the hay’s ratio of calcium to phosphorus to magnesium will be approximately 2:1:1. The other number of significant value is the percentage of (NSC) non-structural carbohydrates. This number is an indication of the sugar and starch content of the hay and is generally best when less than 10 per cent. This can be an essential value for those horses that have an individual sensitivity to the amount of sugars in the hay.
Hay that is properly stored, protected from the elements and well ventilated maintains most of its nutritional value for up to two years.