by Katie Navarra
Horses are naturally designed to survive on forage. Often that’s a combination of grass and high quality hay. Whether you buy or bale your own, understanding how hay supports your horse’s nutritional needs is important for providing your horse a balanced diet.
In early November, Cornell Cooperative Extension hosted a series of Hay There – Equine Forage Quality workshops across New York State. There, Carol Buckhout, an assistant professor in the equine business management program at Cazenovia College, spoke about the importance of hay quality. She began the workshop by debunking common myths about hay.
Myth #1: Last year’s forage analysis should apply to this year’s hay.
Fact: Weather and growing conditions can affect hay quality. The nutritional value in hay grown during a drought varies from that in a wetter growing season.
Myth #2: All flakes of hay weigh the same.
Fact: Hay varieties have different densities. For example, a flake of timothy may weigh five pounds whereas a flake of alfalfa hay may weigh three pounds.
Myth #3: A visual assessment is a good indication of hay quality.
Fact: A visual assessment can be a starting place to check for quality. The color and texture can provide an indication of quality. Observation can also reveal if the hay is free from debris.
A lab analysis is the most accurate way to evaluate the nutrients available in a hay supply. Knowing the nutritional value of the hay you’re feeding allows for adjustment in hay and feed quantities to create a balanced diet.
“A hay analysis is the best way to know what the horse may be receiving from the main ingredient in its diet,” she said.
She recommends Equi-Analytical ( a service based in Ithaca, New York. There are several services to choose from, but she identifies specific items to pay attention to.
“Digestible energy, protein, fiber content in terms of Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) and Neutral Detergent fiber (NDF) are key items to look at,” she said. “Mineral and vitamin content are also important.”
All horses need fiber and hay is a good source of fiber and useful nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, minerals and vitamins.
Determining hay rations
A horse’s weight should be used for determining how much hay to feed.
“Generally 2 to 2.5 percent is a good thumb rule, unless there are specific concerns or needs such as with a lactating brood mare or a horse that is under high levels of exercise,” she said.
That means a 1,000-pound horse should receive between 20 and 25 pounds of forage a day. For horses that have access to pasture, a mix of grass and hay creates that ration. For horses on dry lots or stall board, hay is the only source.
But most horse owners don’t have scales to weigh their horses. That is the easiest and most accurate tool for taking a horse’s weight. As an alternative, Buckhout recommends using a combination of the horse’s measurements and a simple equation.
First, measure in inches the horse’s heart girth. This is the area immediately behind the horse’s elbow and withers.
Next, measure the horse’s body length from the point of its shoulder to its rump.
Then, plug in the measurements in inches into this equation: (heart girth/330 x body length = weight in pounds
After calculating an estimated weight for your horse, you can then determine an appropriate serving of hay. There are exceptions as there are with any rule. A horse’s age, breed and activity level and body condition score may mean the horse needs a larger or smaller serving of hay. Young horses and broodmares may also not follow these guidelines.
Horses with metabolic syndromes such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) and Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) are also exceptions to the rule.
“Horses with equine metabolic syndrome truly benefit from hay analyses to be sure that the total amount of sugars, starches and fructan content of the forage is a total of no more than 10-12 percent of the forage content,” she said.
Working with a veterinarian and/or an equine nutritionist is best for horses with specific nutritional needs. These experts can provide a custom-tailored diet based on specific parameters.
Hay can be one of the most expensive investments in owning horses. It can also be the core component of a horse’s daily ration. So it’s imperative to grow or source quality hay. The fundamental principle of supply and demand dictates pricing and availability. Even if you put away your own hay, but think it may not be enough to last through the season, the best time to secure additional hay is during the haymaking season when there is an abundant supply. Given the weather trends in the northeast this past year, good quality hay may be in short supply.