Hay is a vital part of a horse’s diet. But if you’re a new equestrian, you may be surprised to learn that there are many types of hay. Not every hay is the same, but they each have their own place in the equine world.
Hay and pasture forage make up the majority of most horses’ diets, so it is important that horse owners know the different types of hay that horses eat and the benefits of each.
The following are the most common types of hay that horses eat and what they can offer your horse.
Table of Contents
Types Of Hay Horses Eat
Timothy Grass Hay
One of the most popular hay options that horses eat is timothy grass hay. Compared to other hay options, it contains a substantial amount of protein, at least 8%, and is full of fiber.
Timothy grass hay is a tried-and-true hay option for horses since it is one of the premier grasses grown, harvested, and produced for horses. It is palatable, well-balanced, and easy for horses to digest.
One downside to timothy grass hay is that it can be hard to find in some areas, meaning it may cost more than locally-available hay. Farmers often only get two cuts annually, which means they have less to sell, which can lead to higher costs for the buyer.
Depending on the location, timothy hay can cost between $10 and $20 per square bale.
Orchard Grass Hay
Another favorite type of hay that horses like to eat is orchard grass hay, Orchard grass is an extremely palatable hay option that is packed full of nutrients. It contains even more protein than timothy grass hay at an impressive 10-12%.
Orchard grass hay has more calories than timothy grass hay because horses are able to digest it more thoroughly. It has a balanced ratio of calcium and phosphorus, much like its counterpart.
Unlike timothy grass, orchard grass does not require near as much care or water, and most growers can get three cuttings in an average year. This makes orchard grass hay easier to find and a little less destructive on the bank account.
Orchard grass hay can cost anywhere between $6 to $16 for a small square bale depending on your area and the season.
Rye Grass Hay
Rye grass hay is another type of grass hay that some horses eat and it has been a staple hay for many years in some regions of the country. Although many equestrians may not be familiar with it, it is a quality hay option that is becoming more well-known.
Most commonly found in states like Washington and Oregon, rye grass grows best in cool environments where droughts do not occur often. Rye grass hay can be hard to find in other areas only because it is more difficult to grow there.
Rye grass hay has a significant amount of protein, around 8% to 9% on average, however, it can be dangerous for some horses. It contains high levels of fructans, which can be very detrimental for horses that are unable to digest it properly.
Tall Fescue Grass Hay
Tall fescue grass hay is another relatively common hay that horses eat across the country, primarily in the eastern, central, and northwestern regions of the United States.
It is safe for most horses, however, some varieties can be dangerous when fed in large amounts for broodmares and young horses.
Tall fescue is high-quality grass that does well in rough weather conditions including drought. It contains less protein than both timothy and orchard grass hay, but it usually very palatable for horses
The downfall to fescue grass hay is the fact that some fescue grasses are naturally infected with a fungus that can be extremely detrimental to the health of both breeding mares and young horses.
If you are concerned about the tall fescue hay you are feeding to your horses, have it tested to determine if it carries the fungus or not. There are some varieties of tall fescue grass that are free of this endophyte fungus, so not all tall fescue grass is bad.
Tall fescue grass hay costs between $4 and $10 per 50-pound square bale depending on the location.
Coastal Bermuda Grass Hay
Coastal Bermuda grass hay is a popular type of hay that horses eat and it is found most often in the southeastern part of the country. The grass itself tends to grow extremely well in hot environments and can withstand harsh conditions.
Coastal Bermuda grass hay is more common in the horse world now than it has been in the past, especially when local hay is hard to come by. It is lower in protein than timothy or orchard grass hay, but it is a solid horse hay option that can benefit some horses.
This type of hay is often said to cause colic or extra dry manure in some horses, which can be due to it being harvested when it is overmature and its higher fiber content.
Horse owners feeding coastal Bermuda hay should, of course, make sure their horses have access to plenty of water and monitor their horses closely when first feeding this type of hay.
Oat hay may not be the first type of hay you think of when it comes to horses, but it is a viable hay option for many horses. It is noticeably lower in protein than grass hay choices, but it is an excellent horse hay.
Oat hay has to be fed to horses in higher quantities or in conjunction with other hays as a supplement since it is lower in needed nutrients and calories. It is extremely hard to find in some areas but tends to be more common in the Western half of the country.
Oat hay can vary in price but it tends to range somewhere around $7-$16 per square bale if you can find it.
Brome Grass Hay
Brome grass hay is not an extremely common hay to find, but in many Midwest areas, it is a type of hay that horses eat. It is very palatable for horses and most of them absolutely love it.
Brome grass hay is moderately nutritious for horses, usually containing at least 8% protein. It is easy to digest and very palatable.
The grass itself tends to grow well and can easily withstand droughts, making it a favorite among many farmers.
Brome grass hay is usually relatively affordable if you can find it, often ranging between $6 and $10 for a 50-pound square bale.
Alfalfa hay is a well-known type of hay that horses can eat, however, it is important to monitor their intake. Alfalfa is not a grass, it is actually a legume, a plant that differs from grass and contains significantly higher amounts of protein.
Alfalfa hay contains more protein and calcium than grass hays, which can be a good thing for active, underweight, or pregnant horses, or malnourished foals. Alfalfa hay should only be fed in moderation to horses and along with grass hays.
Alfalfa hay should never be fed to horses that have kidney or liver issues. If you are unsure if alfalfa hay is a good choice for your specific horse, just ask a veterinarian for guidance.
This type of hay is a favorite of many horses as well as horse owners because it is packed full of fiber and energy. Alfalfa hay is easy to chew, high digestible, and can be found in many local feed stores.
Prices can vary depending on where you find it, however, it usually averages between $10 and $30 for a small square bale or bag.
Mixed hay is probably the most common and most affordable hay that horses can eat. Often, different grass hays are mixed with legume hays to produce a balanced hay option for horse owners.
It is common to see options like alfalfa mixed with various types of horse-friendly grass hay. Horse owners can recognize alfalfa-mixed hays typically from their noticeably greener color.
Here are a few of the different mixed hay types offered to horses across the country.
- Alfalfa/Orchard Grass
- Alfalfa/Timothy Grass
- Alfalfa/Bermuda Grass
- Timothy/Orchard Grass
- Alfalfa/Fescue Grass
- Timothy/Orchard Grass/Fescue
- Alfalfa/Orchard Grass/Fescue
The great thing about mixed hay is that is much easier to find and seems to be extremely popular among hay producers.
Do not be alarmed to see bluegrass and clover mixed in with some mixed hay options; they are both safe for horses to eat. Bluegrass is a common grass found in pastures and clover is an extremely common legume that is found in many pastures as well.
Square vs. Round Bales
When purchasing hay for horses, it can be confusing as to whether it is more costly to purchase square bales versus a larger round bale. The truth is, more often than not, it usually depends more on your farm setup than it does the money.
Square bales of hay provide a lot of convenience for horse owners, although they can get a little costly. They tend to range in weight from 40 to 55 pounds depending on the producer, although some can be heavier.
Square bales are easier for horse owners to store, transport, and carry. They also allow horse owners to strictly manage the amount of hay each horse eats and there is little hay wasted during feedings.
To save money, if you find a square bale seller nearby, many will cut the price if you collect the bales fresh out of the field. This saves the seller time, money, and storage room.
The main downfall of square bales is that they cost more on the pound when compared with larger round bales and they need to be restocked often. They can also become scarce during certain times of the year.
Round bales of hay may not be quite as convenient as smaller square bales, however, they are much cheaper overall. They are rather large, often somewhere between four to six feet wide and tall.
Round bales are less expensive in the long run when compared to small square bales because they last much longer and they can easily feed whole herds of horses. They are ideal for horses that are kept in pastures for long periods of time and they are much easier to buy throughout the year.
One negative aspect of round bales is that horse owners cannot manage the exact amount of hay each horse is eating. They will also need a tractor to move each bale of hay from the shed to the pasture.
Aside from that, horse owners will have to have a large shed or enclosure to store extra round bales until they are moved to the pasture.
The hay will also be rained or snowed on outside and there is usually a significant amount of hay that is wasted from it being stepped on.
Many horse owners end up feeding a combination of square bales and round bales depending on how they run their farm. Whatever option you choose, make sure the seller has stored the hay properly for horses.
Things To Keep In Mind
- Always make sure the hay you buy has been stored specifically for horses.
- Do not be afraid to ask your hay supplier exactly what kind of hay it is.
- Steer clear of rye grass hay if your horse is prone to laminitis.
- Have your hay tested if you want to know the true nutritional content.
- Feed alfalfa hay to horses in moderation and in conjunction with a grass hay.
Although those unfamiliar with horses may think that hay is just hay, the fact is, there are several different types of hay that horses can eat.
Some hay is better than others, but more often than not, many horse owners have to choose from the hay they can find locally.
Now you will have a much better understanding of what exactly those options are and which ones are ideal for your horse farm.
Learning about the different types of hay that horses eat was an educational experience to say the least. These are the sources that were used to write this article.