Choosing the Right Forage for Your Horse

Is your horse’s hay meeting his nutritional, health, and welfare needs? Learn how to make informed forage decisions in the Winter 2023 issue of The Horse.
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Make informed forage decisions that satisfy each horse’s nutritional, health, and welfare needs

blanketed horse eating hay in snowy field
You want to choose the right hay for your individual horse’s needs so your neither under-feeding nor overfeeding nutrients. | Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Joël Lecomte shuts off the roaring engine of his tractor and steps down onto the outer edge of a vast, grassy, practically treeless meadow. On this unseasonably warm spring day in Central France, the soon-to-be-retired farmer looks up at the clear sky, takes off his beret, and wipes his brow with his shirt sleeve. Ever a man of few words, he pinches off a blade of bright green ryegrass and simply says, “For the horses, it can’t wait. We’ll cut tomorrow.”

Like all producers of good-quality hay, Lecomte knows there’s an art to growing the right forage for the right herbivore, and hay is anything but one-size-fits-all. Everything matters, from seeding and fertilizing methods and the blend of plant species in the field to the amount of sunshine, rainfall, frosty mornings, wind, and hail and the timing of cutting, drying, and baling.

Unless they cut their own hay, most horse owners don’t need the expert skill set it takes to produce good forage. But what we can—and should—do is know how the quality and nutritional value of forage can vary considerably from one batch to another. And, armed with that knowledge and the help of our equine nutritionists, we can make informed decisions about choosing the right forage for our horses’ needs, says Emanuela Valle, DVM, PhD, ECVCN, head of the clinical nutrition counseling group in the University of Turin’s Department of Veterinary Science, in Italy.

Matching Nutrients to Horse, in a 2% Format


High-quality forage is chock full of nutrients; it can essentially supply all the calories, protein, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium horses need, as well as most of the magnesium and iron and many other vitamins and minerals, says Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD, a professor of equine nutrition in North Carolina State University’s Department of Animal Science, in Raleigh.

“A lot of times people overlook the importance of hay as a nutrition source,” she says. “They just think, ‘I’m just going to give some hay (as a filler) because he’s getting everything he needs from the grain. But it should be the other way around: You should get as much as you can from the hay and whatever’s missing from complementary feed or a balancer.”

Even so, you wouldn’t want to give the same amount and balance of those nutrients to every horse, whose needs vary depending on size, body condition, breed, discipline, work level, genetics, general health, and more.

What you do want to give every horse is the opportunity to spend about 75% of their day consuming and chewing forage, our sources say. This is good for their ­welfare—because grazing all day is what they’re designed by nature to do—and their digestive tract, which is designed to have a fairly constant flow of fiber and saliva enzymes running through it.

Ideally, horses on a hay diet should eat about 2% of their body weight in forage every day. For wetter and dryer forages (see section below), that amount would need to increase or decrease accordingly. Less than that, horses might feel deprived; more than that, they might not finish it all

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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