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“Hay, What is Right for Your Horse?”

April 26, 2011

Choosing the right hay for any animal can be a challenge. Most importantly, you need to understand the nutritional needs of your animal and choose a hay that will meet those needs. If your horse is a barren mare, retired work horse, or a pleasure type riding horse, it has low nutrient requirements. If your horse is a growing horse, lactating mare, work horse, or a performance horse, it has high nutrient needs. Horses with low nutrient requirements should be fed late to mid-maturity alfalfa or mid-maturity grass hays. These hays have less protein, but are still palatable. Also, these hays will satisfy the horse’s appetite without making the horse over weight. High nutrient requirement horses do best when fed early-maturity alfalfa or early-maturity grass hay. These hays have higher protein levels and are very palatable. These hays will satisfy high nutrient requirement horses’ appetites, however these horses should probably also be given a grain supplement. All horses should be provided with a mineral mix to meet all their vitamin and mineral needs.

Once you have determined what hay is appropriate for your horse, you need to make sure you can pick, for lack of a better word, a clean hay. When evaluating a hay for cleanness, first you need to determine if the hay is grass or legume. Legume hays primarily consist of alfalfa and/or clovers. All legumes are considered broadleaf plants. These hays have lots of small leaves, while grass hays have long blade like leaves. After you have determined the type of hay you are looking at you need to inspect the hay for the following: weeds, bugs, and mold/dust. Weeds in legume hays are harder to see than weeds in grass hay. The major bug of concern in hay is the blister beetle. This insect contains a toxin that irritates digestive and urinary tracts. Blister beetles are tiny and difficult to see. Typically blister beetles are found in hay grown in dry, arid regions and in years following heavy grasshopper infestations. Mold and dust can be found in any hay that was not properly cured. Moldy and dusty hay will cause lung problems in horses. In addition mold can cause other detrimental effects on a horse. When inspecting a hay for mold or dust, you want to pull out a handful of the hay, give it a sniffing and shake it out. If the hay smells musty, avoid feeding it to your horse. When you shake the hay, if excess dust comes off or if there is a whiteish powder on the leaves, again avoid feeding to your horse. If you are still unsure if you are feeding the right hay to your horse, contact your local Equine Extension Educator or talk with your veterinarian.

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