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Playing the Field - What Hay is best for my horse?

As a horse owner it is often difficult to decide what roughage to feed horses. In KZN, eragrostis is one of the main options, but here in the Cape there are 2 main contenders.... Teff and Oat hay. Lucerne is fed throughout the country; it just depends on if you are willing to pay for it. The next few blogs are going to be focused on hay and debunking some myths as well as highlighting important factors when considering what to feed our horses. To start let's just get a basic understanding of hay.


Did you know that the average horse consumes 2 to 2.5% of its body weight in roughage a day. The right hay can provide 100% of your horses daily nutritional needs. Horses are what we call trickle grazers, in the wild horses eat and graze 24/7 this ensures that their gastrointestinal tract remains healthy and functioning optimally, it also keeps their minds at ease.

There are three important components to your horse's diet:

1. Digestible Energy (DE)

Refers to calories per kilogram. The higher your DE the less your horse will need to eat to keep him fit. The easiest way to assess this is to watch your horse’s weight. If he is skinny, then feed more if he is fat then feed less. Exercising horses, pregnant or lactating mares and youngsters all need higher energy than a sedentary horse.

2. Protein

Protein requirements vary between different types of horses based on what they are doing. A horse in light work will generally only require 10-11% protein daily, whereas a horse in heavy work will require 12-14% protein daily. Visual clues such as: lack of muscling along back and topline and a pot belly are often indicators that your horse lacks protein.

Too much protein will not cause an issue for your horse. High protein diets often cause more urine production and a high ammonia content in the urine but that is more of a stall cleaning hassle. High protein diets have a higher DE which means they have more calories.

3. Carbohydrates

Hay’s carbohydrates can be expressed in 3 ways: nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC), water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) and ethanol soluble carbohydrates (ESC).

Nonstructural carbohydrates refer to starch and sugars broken down in the small intestine and absorbed as glucose into the bloodstream. This is risky for horses that have a sugar sensitive condition.

Water soluble carbohydrates include simple sugars without starch. Nutritionists prefer to look at water soluble carbohydrates as well as ethanol soluble carbohydrates to separate a specific type of sugar molecule called fructan which is especially risky for laminitic horses.


Vets will recommend, for sugar sensitive conditions, looking for an NSC value that is less than 10%, although, in many cases this is difficult to find. A WSC value of less than 10% is a far more realistic goal.


3 factors to consider when looking at hay: hay type, storage and harvest conditions.

1. Hay type

Where you live will dictate what type of hay is available to buy. Most hay types can be separated into three categories: legumes, grass and cereal grain. An example of legumes would be lucerne and other clover varieties. Grass would be something like teff, however, their nutritional values varying drastically depending on harvest conditions. Cereal grains include things like oat hay and barley straw.





On average lucerne is highest in protein and often do not fall below 18%, whereas grass hays can fall below 5% depending on harvest and storage conditions. Grass hays are higher in carbohydrates compared to legumes and are a riskier proposition to the sugar sensitive horse. Oat hay is low in protein and high in sugar content, it is a good forage option for some horses but not a good option for sugar sensitive horses and will likely require a protein supplementation to meet basic nutritional needs.

2. Harvest conditions

Maturity of hay is important as when the hay matures digestibility decreases and protein levels decrease. NSC levels will also decrease. To determine maturity in lucerne look for small tight “buds” on lucerne and small soft seed heads on grasses or oat hay. If you see purple flowers on lucerne or large, coarse seed heads on grass or oat hay, it indicates that the hay is more mature.

Moisture level indicates whether you are likely to end up with moldy, combustible hay or dusty brittle hay. Both cases are not favourable to horses.


3. Storage

Studies have shown that correctly stored hay can maintain its nutritional value for at least 3 years. Properly stored hay is kept indoors, stacked off the ground and stored in a cool environment.


So how do we go about making a choice? Lets use these hypothetical situations to help us.

1. Lazy Fred

Fred is an older horse who is obese and insulin resistant.

Fred requires a low carb, low calorie hay but at the same time needs adequate protein to meet his basic nutritional requirements.

Recommendation? Later maturity grass would be a good option for Fred as it is lower in digestible energy and NSC which will help facilitate weight loss and reduce sugar risks. To counter the lack of protein one could feed a small amount of lucerne to increase protein intake for Fred.


2. Hacking Henrietta

Henrietta is a mature horse in moderate work. She has a chronic cough that gets worse at different times of the year.

Her needs are simple…she needs dust and mold free hay and her basic nutritional requirements met.

Recommendation? Early maturity, good quality grass is all she needs. If grass hay is not available, then Oat hay is a good option too


3. Jolly Jeff

Jeff is a fit, energetic, high performance horse that works hard daily. He is also in a high stress environment and battles to maintain weight.

Jeff needs a hay that has high digestibility and at least 12-14% protein.

Recommendation? Lucerne should be apart of Jeff’s ration as along with the high protein content it also has higher calcium which has a buffering effect on his stomach acids and can reduce ulcer risks. Jeff can also be fed an early maturity, high quality grass hay.


These scenarios show how important it is to look at each horse as an individual and also to look at their diets as a whole to determine what they are getting, what they are lacking and what still needs to be supplemented. Tune in next week for more frolicking in the fields.

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