Do Horses Need Hay Around the Clock?

A horse owner asks if she’s feeding her horse hay often enough. Nutritionist Dr. Clair Thunes responds.
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Do Horses Need Hay Around the Clock
Horses' digestive tracts are set up to receive small amounts of food almost constantly and always secrete stomach acid; most of their digestive tract volume is dedicated to forage fermentation. | Photo: iStock

Q.Do horses need hay around the clock? I have heard that horses need hay kept in front them all the times, but also that they don’t need 24-hour access to hay. I feed my 20-year-old horse 8 ounces of protein feed in the morning with two to three flakes of hay, and then turn him out on the pasture in afternoon until it gets dark. Now that it’s dark at 5: 30 p.m., I bring him in but don’t give him any hay for the night. Am I feeding him enough?

A.Accurately evaluating if you’re currently feeding the right amount of hay is challenging because I don’t have all the information I need about your horse and what you’re currently feeding. There are really two ways to look at your question:

  1. The first is are you feeding enough to meet your horse’s nutritional requirements; and
  2. Are you feeding enough to maintain gut health?

I will try to address both using some general considerations and hope you’ll find it helpful

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

One Response

  1. This article is well written and takes in to account many variables. I would like to know if we take all the opinions and owner limitations out, as a nutritionist how would you feed your horse. If cost and resources weren’t a problem and the horse wasn’t an easy keeper unicorn that gets fat on air. Would you offer free choice forage? Would you opt for less grain and more hay? What do you feel is truly best for the horse? Thanks!

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