Common types of hay for horses


It’s not as straightforward as you may hope – there are lots of types of hays and lots of options.  There are legume and grass hays, and cool season and warm season hays.  Your horse’s medical history and nutritional needs will dictate what is best for your horse. 


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Legume hays for horses – alfalfa and clover.


  • Alfalfa, and clover hay for that matter, are both legumes. As are peanuts, and all are members of the pea family. For horses, alfalfa and clover are the two legume hays most commonly fed. Alfalfa is quite delicious, and horses will readily eat it. Alfalfa is also affordable in most areas.


  • Alfalfa is high in calcium and protein, as well as Vitamin A, and has more calories than grass hay. This presents a problem, as there is so much calcium your horse’s calcium and phosphorus ratio can be thrown off balance. This must be supplemented with high phosphorus supplements or feed. This is also why alfalfa is not good for young and growing horses. The imbalance can create too much growth too fast, and the development of bone can be influenced.


  • Hard keepers need extra calories, and alfalfa provides them. This is great, especially in winter, as your horse is burning more forage in his gut to stay warm.


very green timothy hay stacked in a barn


You might have heard about alfalfa and gastric ulcers in horses.


  • The large amounts of calcium act as a stomach buffer, working towards neutralizing acids that can erode a horse’s stomach lining and create ulcers.


  • Hay, in general, also helps your horse if you feed before exercise. Hay before a horse exercises creates a floating barricade in your horse’s stomach, separating the mucous-covered lower part from the bare upper part of the stomach.


  • When a horse trots and canters about, the acid and stomach juices that normally rest on the protected bottom of the stomach get jostled around and will coat the unprotected upper portion. Any hay in the stomach before a workout creates a stomach acid “hat,” reducing the jostling and splashing. Alfalfa hay’s calcium content can also start to neutralize the acids, providing another layer of help against ulcers.


But what about some of the downsides to alfalfa?


  • Aside from the calcium and phosphorus levels that need to be balanced across your horse’s entire diet, there are some other downsides.


  • The high-calorie count doesn’t help any easy keepers, and an easy-keeping horse can easily become overweight. This is the gateway to other issues, from thermoregulation to joint issues to laminitis.


  • Alfalfa is also a favorite choice of the blister beetle. These seemingly harmless bugs can kill your horse easily. Blister beetles are sometimes caught up in the baling process of making hay, so close inspection of every single flake is necessary. Blister beetles will kill a horse quickly.


  • And let’s not overlook all of that calcium. While good for stomach acids and ulcers, the calcium can start to form enteroliths in the intestines of some unlucky horses. These sometimes giant stones result from minerals collecting, a bit like how an oyster makes a pearl. But not as pretty.


clover pasture


Clover hay for horses.


  • As a hay cousin to alfalfa, clover shares many of alfalfa’s nutritional qualities. And it’s quite tasty as well. Clover hays are high in protein and fiber as well.


  • A few different types of clover can be harvested for horse hay. White clover is good, but red and crimson clovers will be taller, thus giving the farmer a greater yield on his crop.


The one big downside to clover hay for horses.


  • MOLD! It’s tricky for clover hay to dry completely in the field. You may recall from my enthralling article about hay making that once a field is cut, it needs to remain on the ground to dry out fully. Clover doesn’t like to do that part.


  • Consequently, damp clover hay is baled sometimes. This creates mold, which can pose several problems for horses. Besides causing respiratory issues when a horse inhales moldy hay, there are other problems when a horse eats moldy hay. They may just not want to eat anymore, they may be colicky, they may progress to organ damage.


  • There’s also the chance that a horse can develop slobbers from clover hay, which usually isn’t bad. Sometimes a horse will become dehydrated from the sheer volume of drool. A fungus that can grow on some clover creates this excessive salivation. If your horse doesn’t have problems with dehydration, you will still be cleaning up lots of drool and soggy bedding.


Cool season versus warm season grasses.


  • Cool-season grasses do better in northern climates that have cooler summers and falls. Cool-season grasses have higher NSC values than warm-season grasses, which is the amount of non-structural carbohydrates. Cool-season grasses may not be the best choice for horses with metabolic issues, such as PPID or insulin resistance, or laminitis risks. Cool-season grasses are typically tastier and have higher calorie counts as well.


  • Warm-season grasses do not have fructans, which lowers the NSC value. These grow well in heat and drought conditions. They may not taste as good as cool-season grasses, but it’s hard to find a horse that will turn them down!


  • Grass hays are full of fiber, which satisfies your horse without so many extra, and often unnecessary, calories.


  • There’s also a type of grass hay called cereal hay, which when harvested before the grain is removed. It becomes straw if the grain is removed before the hay is harvested.


round hay bales in hay field


Grass hay for horses – Orchard, Timothy, Teff, and Bermuda.




  • As far as cool-season grasses go, orchard grass is a prime example. If you are into fun facts, you might enjoy the tidbit that orchard hay does well in shady areas, such as orchards.


  • Orchard grass is tasty, easy to grow, and fairly balanced as far as hays go. You still need to supplement vitamins and minerals, as with most hays. It can have a slightly higher average percentage of protein than timothy hay.


  • It can be easily grown alongside alfalfa for a nice mix. It’s also typically more affordable than timothy hay, and different cuttings provide similar nutritional value.


Timothy hay for horses


  • This type of grass hay is just about as delicious as alfalfa. It’s also usually quite expensive! Timothy is nutritious for grass hay, which might make up for some of the costs associated with it.


  • Timothy is a cool season grass, and many horse owners feed timothy as it’s easy for horses to digest. It’s a good grass hay for horses that tend to be sensitive and colicky, but there’s always the exception. Timothy hay’s nutritional values vary depending on the cutting.


  • When growing timothy hay, the climate is key. Think Pacific North West climate with cooler winters and springs and warm, but not hot summers. This is probably another reason for the cost – it needs to be shipped across all of the land!


stacks of hay in a hay loft




  • This hay is the new-ish guy on the block. Teff hay is a warm-season hay with the massive benefit of being low starch. This gives another layer of safety to horses with metabolic issues or a laminitis history. The overall NSC value is quite low, and the overall nutritional content is similar to that of timothy hay.


  • Teff hay is an ancient grain from Ethiopia and does well in hot and dry climates. Depending on where you live, it may be easier to get Teff hay than Timothy!


  • Sometimes you can find Teff hay in a pellet or cube form, but it’s not as common as a timothy pellet. 




  • This warm season grass is usually reasonably priced and easy to find. It’s also lower in nutritional quality than timothy or orchard, but in some cases, that’s ok if the diet is balanced with an appropriate ration balancer. It’s low in protein, which may not be good for your horse.


  • Bermuda hay is commonly grown in the South, and is typically affordable. Mixing with a legume is common, to balance the nutritional values.


  • You want to be careful which cut of Bermuda you feed, as later cuts may be harder to digest. Bermuda is generally harder to digest anyway so a sensitive horse may have trouble eating it.


  • Some horses get diarrhea, and there may be a link between ileocecal colics and Bermuda hay. There’s no definitive proof that this rare colic and Bermuda hay are connected, but there’s no definitive proof that it’s not. Hydration is a major factor as well in these cases.


grass hay texture


How do you pick the “best” hay for your horse?


  • There are a lot of factors that play into what type of hay is best for your horse. You should loop your vet into any hay decisions, and consult an Equine Nutritionist to help develop a balanced diet for your horse.

Factors to consider when picking hay:


  • What’s available in your area?


  • What sort of hay fits into your budget? If you use a more affordable or lower quality hay, you may need to supplement with a ration balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement. Factor in that price in also.


  • What medical issues does your horse have? Ulcer-prone horses may benefit from a bit of alfalfa in their diet. Metabolic horses need a lower NSC value. How much protein does your horse need? Protein needs can also be filled with ration balancers if need be.


  • Is mixed hay the best for your horse? It’s rarely a good idea to only feed one type of hay; there are lots of blends available to get the best of both worlds. You can also feed pellets or hay cubes if a specific long-stem hay is hard to find in your area.


  • Is there enough of the best cuttings in your area to keep your horse fed over the winter? This isn’t a problem in some areas or with certain types of hay, but something to consider.


  • You may also want to consider testing your hay for its nutritional value. This can only help you and the vet and nutritionist develop the best plan for your horse.


Whatever hay you choose for your horse, be sure to give your horse a few weeks (yes weeks) to transition from his previous hay to a new one slowly. Gradually decrease the previous hay and slowly increase the new one.


I also suggest using slow feeders for hay delivery, to help your horse keep chewing all day and all night long! There are tons of styles out there.


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40 lb. Alfalfa Cubes
$35.02 ($0.05 / Fl Oz)
04/10/2024 06:48 pm GMT


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