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Hay Facts for Your Horses

Horses eat roughly 1 – 2% of their body weight daily; if you have a 1,000-lb horse, it will need to eat between 10 – 20 lbs daily to stay healthy. If your horse doesn’t have access to grass seasonally or climate-wise, hay is the next best option for supplementing its diet. While feeding hay is somewhat straightforward, there are some intricacies to be aware of.

Everything you need to know about feeding hay to horses: Hay is dried grass that has maintained its nutrients through the hay-making process. It is typically purchased as square or round bales of varying sizes, ranging from 35 pounds to over 1,500 pounds. It is very important to a horse’s health to feed hay that is as high in quality as possible.

Knowing what and how to feed your horse is arguably the most important aspect of good horsemanship. I will share everything I know about feeding horse hay in this article!

Why Do Horses Need Hay?

In the wild, horses spend most of their day grazing on various grass and plant species, which is the diet their bodies are designed for. Not all domestic horses have enough pasture to meet their nutritional requirements, so supplementation is required. The most efficient and economical way to meet the dietary needs of these horses is through dried grasses that can be stored, otherwise known as hay. 

What Kind of Hay Should Horses Eat?

The type of hay you feed your horse will depend on what’s available to you locally. Some grasses grow well in the humid regions of the country, while others thrive in arid climates. It is usually more economical to purchase hay that grows locally, as purchasing hay that has to be shipped will increase the cost. 

Alfalfa is not actually grass but a legume. It is higher in calories and protein and is ideal for horses who need to put on weight, including foals, lactating mares, seniors, and rescue horses. Popular grass hays include (but are not limited to) teff, orchard, and timothy. Teff is ideal for horses sensitive to sugars and starches or overweight. Orchard and timothy grass are good choices for horses of most stages.  

How Much Does it Cost to Feed Hay to Horses?

For many owners, hay is the most expensive part of keeping horses. In the US, the average square bale will cost between $7 and $20, while the average round bale will cost between $35 and $100. These are significant ranges, and much of that has to do with location. For example, a large square bale of grass hay will cost $20-$28 in California, while the same will cost around $11-$12 in Texas. Where I’m from in Virginia, you can easily find a quality square bale from $6 – $8. This is largely due to Virginia having lush growing seasons where farmers can produce 3 to 4 cuttings a year, making hay more plentiful. For a more thorough breakdown on the cost of hay, visit my article How Much a Bale of Hay Costs For Horses: Budget Guide.

How much hay do horses eat?

Knowing the cost of a bale of hay won’t help you plan your budget unless you know how long that bale will last you. Horses eat, on average, 1-2% of their body weight in forage per day. The average 1,200-lb horse will eat around 12-25 pounds of hay daily. There are a few different sizes of hay that can be purchased:

  • Small square bales – these are also called “2-string bales” because two strands of twine are used to hold them together. They usually weigh between 60 and 70 pounds.
  • Large square bales – also called “3-string bales”- typically weigh between 100 and 120 pounds. 
  • Round bales – can vary in size, from around 5’ to 8’ tall, and weigh 900 to 1,500 pounds. 

This means that a typical 1,200-pound horse will go through a small square bale of hay in 2-3 days, while a large square bale can last up to 5 days. A round bale may last a month or more.

Horse Hay: Round Bales or Square Bales?

Large square bales and round bales are both popular, and each has its benefits and disadvantages. I use large square bales because they’re easy to come by, and I can store several without using too much space. If I had a larger operation, I would likely purchase round bales. The benefits of round bales include:

  • They can be more moisture-resistant, as the cylindrical shape maintains a dryer interior, and a smaller surface area is exposed to the elements. 
  • They are usually much less expensive per pound than square bales.
  • They can hold as much as twenty times the amount a square bale can hold, so each bale lasts much longer.
  • If you have the right equipment, moving one round bale is easier than an equivalent amount of square bales.

When you break apart a square bale, it will separate into flakes. A flake is a defined block of hay. You can feed flakes by putting them in a hay net and hanging the hay or by placing them on the ground. Over the years, I’ve learned that feeding hay closer to the ground is better, as it helps control the dust coming out of the hay. It’s also most natural for a horse to eat with their head down stretched towards the ground.

When feeding a round bale, the outer net or twine must be removed first so the horses can safely eat the hay. Many people will use round bale holders, covers, or nets to limit waste from the round bale. While round bales are more economical and can weigh as much as 1,500 lbs, a large portion of the hay is wasted as the horses trample and defecate on it. I would say that I normally see about 1/5 of a round bale wasted when it is put out in the elements, and the horses have complete access to it.

How and Where to Store Horse Hay

No one wants to purchase hay a bale at a time – it’s much more convenient and economical to store hay in bulk when able. It can be kept for years if stored correctly (though the nutritional value may begin to wane after a year). It is important that the hay is stored in a dry location for its preservation. Because the ground itself can transfer moisture to the hay, it’s wise to keep your bottom bales on a pallet or scrap lumber so they are slightly raised off the ground.

I also prefer to keep hay out of the sun to preserve the outside of the bales as much as possible. Most ranchers and farmers keep their hay in an enclosed structure such as a barn, but a three-sided shelter will also work if it’s protected from the elements. I have a large carport that serves as double duty. I keep stacks of hay in the fully enclosed end where it always stays dry and shaded, while we park our cars on the other end.

 

How to Spot Good-Quality Horse Hay

It’s important to purchase the best quality hay that you can find and afford. Two different growers can sell you the same species of grass hay, but they may not be of the same quality. Good quality hay will have the following qualities:

  • A green color – though the outside layer may be sun-bleached, when you open the bale you should see a healthy green.
  • Fine stems – good quality hay will have an abundance of fine, pliable stems instead of thick stalks. Grabbing a handful of hay should be relatively soft and squeezable and not feel like a handful of thick stems or twigs.
  • A pleasant odor – hay should smell like hay. While it’s a challenging smell to describe, most of us know it. It’s slightly sweet and not unpleasant. If hay doesn’t smell like hay, I would avoid it.

How to Tell if Your Horse Hay Has Gone Bad

When care is not taken to store hay properly, it can go bad quickly. If this happens, there are clear signs you’ll encounter.

  • An unpleasant odor – if you’ve been around healthy hay, you will recognize when it smells off. I’ve left a bale out in a rain storm. When I checked the bale a few days later, it was obvious it was no longer edible. Hay can easily become moldy, and if it smells like a dark, mildewy basement, it’s best not to feed it to your horses.
  • Excessive heat – mold growth generates heat, so if you feel excessive heat emanating from the bale, further investigation is warranted. 
  • Lack of color – if a bale of hay has lost its green interior, it has probably lost most of its nutritional value as well.
  • Excessive dust – while I would never expect to be able to feed my animals hay without a thorough wiping down of my clothes afterward, hay shouldn’t carry an excessive amount of fine dust. This can harm a horse’s respiratory system. 

If you’re ever in doubt about the health of your hay, it is best to err on the side of caution and replace it with fresh, high-quality hay. A respiratory infection or a nutritional deficiency will cost more in the long run than a few replacement bales. To learn more tips for spotting bad hay, visit my article How to Know if Your Hay is Bad: Essential Horse Hay Guide.

The Importance of Quality Horse Hay

Unless you have an ample healthy pasture, high-quality hay is integral to your horse’s health and quality of life. While it is likely to be your biggest expense overall as a horse owner, it is also your most important expense. I purchase hay from a local grower I know well. His prices are lower than what I can find at the feed store, and I trust him and his product. If you can’t find a local grower, shop around at a few different feed stores. You want to be able to purchase the best hay at the most reasonable price. Your horse will thank you for it, and so will your wallet! To learn more about important aspects of a horse’s diet, visit my article What Do Horses Eat? Horse Diets 101.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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