Hay is probably not something most people think about on a daily basis, but in the equestrian and horse world, we know we can’t go without it. In fact, last summer’s drought had many horse owners scrambling to find enough to put away for the winter. So if hay is such a vital aspect of our horses’ diets, what factors should we consider in choosing what kind and how much to feed?
Hay and forage are crucial parts of a horse’s diet, as they provide both nutrients and satiety for your horse. However, when the seasons change and the lush, green grass of summer leaves us with cooler temperatures, we’re left with dull, and in many cases, over-grazed pastures. That’s when many horse owners turn to hay as the main source of roughage throughout the winter.
Digestion is the best way for your horse to generate heat, as it is, literally, a central heat source. Good bacteria in the hindgut of a healthy equine are responsible for creating this heat. There’s an old horseman’s saying that grain is the best way to heat a horse; however, this is not the case. While grain may provide more calories for the horse than forage, it is not the most effective feed to keep it warm- that’s where hay comes in.
When deciding what type of hay to feed this winter, consider your horse’s nutritional needs. Mixed-grass hay may not have the protein content other types of hay contain, but it is high in fiber, making it a great choice for senior horses or horses that can maintain their body weight throughout the winter. It is also affordable. Also high in fiber, bermuda hay is a popular choice in the South, although it still may not be the best option for horses with high protein needs. If you have a senior horse that needs help maintaining weight or a performance horse in training, alfalfa hay may be a good option. Although it is rich in protein and other nutrients, alfalfa should be fed with caution as it has been known to cause colic due to the excess gas it generates in the hindgut. At Redemption Road Horse Rescue in Jackson, TN, bermuda hay is fed year round. If a horse in poor body condition requires the protein of alfalfa, it is introduced gradually and mixed with the bermuda hay.
Steve and Rebecca King of Triple C Farms in Covington, Tenn., suggest providing a variety for your horse through mixed-grass hay. They liken it to humans- just as we don’t all have the same preferences, horses are similar in that way. Some horses may want clover, some lespedeza, some bermuda; they’ll be drawn to their preference when grazing. “Providing mixed-grass hay mimics how they forage in the pasture,” says Steve. There’s something for every horse in a mixed-grass roll.
Once you know what type of hay you want to feed, consider the amount your horses will need. “Normal daily hay intake should be 1.5%- 2% of body weight, so for an 1,100 pound horse that is 16.5 to 22 pounds of hay,” according to Michele Harn, MS, Equine Nutrition. If your horse is on a small pasture with little grass thanks to last summer’s drought, consider free access to a round roll. Placing the round roll in a hay ring will help reduce waste that comes along with horses dragging and trampling the hay. Commercial slow feeder nets that encase the entire roll may also be beneficial in helping reduce the amount of the roll that is wasted. If you’re concerned about your roll being exposed to the elements and moisture potentially creating mold, you may want to invest in a covered hay ring or a DIY covered horse feeder. If you have a larger pasture where your horse can forage daily, you may choose to feed flakes of square bales.
No matter which type of hay or how much you feed, make sure your horses have access to sanitary water. Hay increases thirst demands, so if your horse is eating more hay to stay warm this winter it will need more water as well. When the temperatures drop, blankets are a personal preference, but hay is a necessity.