Horses and Hay: Choosing the Best Hay for Your Horse

Have you ever heard that in theory horses can only live on hay? In high-quality products, there are a large number of minerals and vitamins in the fibers. Find out here why it can be a useful addition to the feeding plan, not only in winter, why hay is so important for horses, and what types and alternatives there are!

Why is Hay Important for Horses?

Many horse owners provide a hay rack in the paddock or paddock by early autumn at the latest. Because at this time the meadows are slowly becoming bare and the supply of woodchip from the grass is sparse. The hay is then, so to speak, a substitute for wintertime. But due to the good nutrient content, it can make sense to provide hay all year round – especially if the animals spend a lot of time on the paddock or in the box.

A Real Vitamin Cocktail

Horses need different vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, trace elements, minerals, and also sugar so that their body can carry out their basic functions without problems. These are sufficiently contained in high-quality hay – what that exactly means, we will clarify later.

The proportion of raw fibers in the hay is particularly important for horse feeding. Because these structuring carbohydrates are only broken down in the large intestine and provide the horse with energy. This is in contrast to humans or other Omni or carnivores. Because with these, raw fibers should play the smallest possible role in the diet, as we cannot digest them.

From digesting the raw fibers, a horse gains energy on the one hand and free fatty acids are released on the other. Both the intestinal mucosa and the liver benefit from this. In addition, hemicelluloses, hecosans, and beta-glucans are formed in the digestive process, which play important roles in the body and contribute to overall health and a stable immune system.

Tailored to the Horse’s Body

Are you now asking yourself why, instead of feeding hay, you can’t just use specific concentrates that contain these ingredients? This consideration is entirely justified because there are very different such mixtures on the market today that can completely cover the vitamin and mineral balance of an animal. But there are several arguments in favor of hay.

First of all, you should know that hay is the closest thing horses can get to their original diet. Because in the steppes they mainly grazed. By nature, they are already rough eaters and their bodies are constructed accordingly. The nutrients are slowly absorbed and digested and used over a longer period of time.

In addition, the animals are actually busy eating all day long in the wild. It is therefore not good for the body to have long breaks from eating. On the contrary: sooner or later there will be an excess of stomach acid, which can have serious consequences. However, if hay or other roughage is available for 24 hours, this condition can be prevented.

Not All Hay is Created Equal

Do you want to feed your horse hay and benefit from the positive properties of roughage? Then the first thing to do is to look closely at the end product. Because not only the quality is decisive, but also what type of hay you feed. So now you will find out what the fundamental differences between hay, silage, and haylage are and how you determine their quality.

Typical: Hay for Horses

First of all, let’s distinguish between hay and straw because these are the terms you will usually come across most often. While hay is made from dried grass and herbs, straw is made from stalks of grain. The latter is, so to speak, the dried waste product from the grain harvest. That is why it contains almost no vitamins and nutrients, which are found in sufficient quantities in the hay.

The quality of the hay depends very much on the time of harvest and storage. The grass is best mowed in early summer (usually June) when the fields are in bloom and most of the nutrients can be found in the grass. After that, the grass should be dried in place for a few days and then stored in an airy place. After six to eight weeks it is then ready to be fed because after this time all germs and other microorganisms have died if properly stored.

High-quality hay for horses still contains around 15% moisture. Because of the more moisture, the better the extraction of nutrients. But it also increases the risk of mold growth. This mean value, therefore, relates to sufficiently dry, but still very full-fledged hay. To see if your hay is good without a laboratory sample, do the following tests:


  • Green to yellow: high nutrient content, good storage.
  • Yellow to brown: lower nutrient content, slightly to severely overheated storage.
  • Gray to white: infested with mold, do not feed under any circumstances!


  • Intense grass/herb smell: high nutrient content, well stored.
  • Odorless to slightly smoky: lower nutrient content, stored for a long time or too warm.
  • Putrid to musty: infested with mold, do not feed under any circumstances!


  • Soft to fine: high protein and nutrient content, rich in leaves and few stems.
  • Rough and slightly bulky: low protein, but high crude fiber content, rich in stems and poor in leaves.
  • Very bulky to woody: poor digestibility, very stalks.
  • Damp to damp: high risk of fungal attack, better not feed!

Allergy-friendly: Haylage

Like conventional hay, haylage is made from grass and herbs. The difference here lies in the further processing. Because haylage brings with it a much higher level of residual moisture (between 40 and 50 percent). This is particularly beneficial for horses with dust allergies or respiratory diseases, as it binds the dust better. This means that it cannot be inhaled as strongly while eating.

In order to achieve this increased humidity without the hay becoming moldy for horses, it is packed airtight after only a very short drying phase. This is how herbs and grass are fermented lactic acid. A pH value of around 4.2% is aimed for, at which bacteria and pathogens, as well as molds, die. It is essential for the success of the haylage that no air can get in.

If you want to switch the feeding to haylage, there are a few things to consider. First of all, an acclimatization phase should be planned – similar to grazing – in which you observe carefully whether your horse is getting haylage. In addition, you should always check the bales carefully before feeding them: Do they smell foul? Is the hay gray in some places? Then air crept in and the haylage got moldy, in the worst case even a dead animal could have been trapped. This can have serious consequences, including botulism. Get rid of such bales!

For Sensitive Horses: Silage

Silage is basically an even more humid (55 to 65%) haylage. This food is very acidic in order to counteract the mold-forming bacteria. While silage can be a good, protein-rich variant for horses with allergies, you should definitely give these animals additional concentrated feed. This should be specifically designed to prevent over-acidification.

The quality of the silage is strongly related to the storage. The bales should be kept airtight so that no bacteria can form here. A pH below 4.2% is ideal. If you find a crack in the film or if you use the tests described above to determine that bacteria and/or mold have formed when opening it, it is better to dispose of the bales.

The Horse Needs Hay, or: How Much Should It Be?

How much hay is the right amount for horses depends on the one hand on the bodyweight of your animal and on the other hand on the type you choose. Basically, it is said that for every 100 kg of dead weight, around 1.5 to 2 kg of roughage is required. However, this value relates to the dry matter content of the feed and thus varies depending on the variety.

If there is also fresh grass available, you should feed accordingly less. In addition, individual needs, such as a diet or a high-performance phase, can increase or decrease the need.

Mary Allen

Written by Mary Allen

Hello, I'm Mary! I've cared for many pet species including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, fish, and bearded dragons. I also have ten pets of my own currently. I've written many topics in this space including how-tos, informational articles, care guides, breed guides, and more.

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