Ask any Average Joe on the street what a horse eats, and chances are he’ll answer, ‘hay.’ Even those who’ve never picked a foot or mucked a stall recognize that fibrous dried forage as the foundation of a horse’s diet. Given that, it’s surprising how little respect hay gets. Perhaps it’s not as sexy as a bag of high-powered grain or a bucket of space-age supplements, but without hay, we couldn’t maintain our horses in good health.

Although horses were designed as grazing animals, there are very few places in the world where good-quality pasture grows year-around. In climates that suffer ice and snow in the winter months, pasture plants wither and die. In warmer zones, hot summer days can cause pastures to go dormant from lack of moisture. Either way, you’re looking at months of poor grazing, during which, if left to their own devices, most horses would suffer weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. Fortunately, hay helps fill the gap, and in many situations, it provides the bulk of the fiber in an equine’s diet even when grazing is available.

Lower in moisture than fresh plant material, hay provides concentrated fiber in a format that demands a lot of ‘chew time.’ That’s beneficial because a horse who’s munching hay is having his grazing urge satisfied (and as a side-benefit, he’s not chewing down your barn or fence). Hay also helps maintain your horse’s gastrointestinal health. Because the gut is designed first and foremost to process fiber, its activity and muscle tone are stimulated by digesting hay. Too little fiber in the diet can put your horse at risk for dehydration, colic, and even laminitis.

Since hay is such an important part of your horse’s diet, it’s worth digging into a bale to find out more.

FAQ: How much hay does my horse need?

As a rough guideline, a horse should consume 1% to 2% of its body weight each day in forage products—at