Forage makes up between 50 and 90 percent or more of a horse’s diet.
Much of the forage part of the diet comes in the form of hay. Because it’s such a big part of the ration, a good quality hay can help keep a horse healthy, while a poor quality hay can be detrimental. This is why, as nutritionists and horse owners, we put a big emphasis on the quality of hay we feed.
The nutritional value of hay is the most important factor when determining its quality. This begins with the stage of plant maturity at time of harvest. Young, immature plants contain more nutrients than older, stemmier plants. Though after hay is harvested, the level of horse hay quality goes beyond the age of the plant at harvest.
When selecting your horse’s forage, keep these six signs of good quality horse hay in mind:
1. High leaf-to-stem ratio
Think about the leafy greens you eat. You likely prefer greens with leaves rather than just stems. The same is true for your horse. Look for more flat leaves in the hay and fewer round stems; this indicates the plant was less mature when cut. More leaves typically mean higher digestibility and nutrient content for your horse.
2. Small diameter stems
Stems smaller in diameter or finer are also indicators of higher quality horse hay. Small stems mean the plant was less mature when cut. To test stem size, grab a handful of hay and give it a squeeze. Good quality hay is soft and pliable, and feels good in your hand. If it feels like you’re squeezing a handful of sticks, it is not a good choice of hay to feed your horse.
3. Few seed heads or blooms
No matter the species of plant, hay with little to no seed heads or blooms indicates a younger, early maturity plant, and thus a higher quality hay. For example, timothy hay should be cut in the pre-bloom or early-bloom stage when you see little to no seed heads; and alfalfa should be cut when you see few to no blooms.
4. Fresh smell and appearance
On our farm, there’s nothing like haying season. We love the smell of fresh hay. The same is true for your horse. Good quality hay should have a fresh cut smell and appearance. Avoid musty, moldy or off-setting smelling hay, because it can reduce palatability and indicate poor quality.Click here to see more...