top of page



The Main Types of Forage

  • Hay;

  • Legume hay – such as alfalfa – is a primary component of a horse's diet that provides fibre, energy, and essential nutrients;

  • Haylage;

  • Pasture. Well-maintained, nutrient-rich grass fields offer horses a natural source of forage.

When it comes to forage quality, it’s important to ensure that the hay or pasture is of good nutritional value, and it's free from mould, dust, and other undesirables.

To help you assess the quality of hay, here are some common nutritional markers:

  • Protein Content. Protein is an essential nutrient for horses, and the content in hay can vary depending on the type of hay you are feeding and its maturity at harvest. Hay with higher protein content is generally more desirable for growing horses or those in intense work;

  • Fibre Content. Fibre is a must for proper digestive function. Hay with moderate to high fibre content tends to be good for most horses. However, excessively high fibre levels or overly mature hay may be less digestible and provide fewer nutrients;

  • Energy Content. This is about calories and the higher the energy content the better it is for horses with higher energy needs, such as sports horses. Energy content is influenced by factors such as hay type, maturity at harvest, and environmental conditions during growth;

  • Mineral and Vitamin Content. Yep, good hay should provide a healthy balance of essential minerals and vitamins including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc, selenium, and vitamins A, D, and E.




Hay is commonly fed to horses and ponies because it tends to be readily available and is easy to store and use. It can be split into two types:

  • Meadow Hay – this is hay that is harvested from permanent pasture and will usually contain more than one type of grass species;

  • Seed Hay – this refers to a crop of grass that has been specifically grown and harvested for hay.

All types of hay are baled for convenience and handling purposes. Nowadays, bales can vary hugely

in size, from small conventional bales to massive Hesston bales weighing around 600kg.

Before buying any hay, it is worth considering if it has been produced for horses or not. Farmers who have not harvested it specifically for horses might be less aware of any potential problems such as poisonous plants e.g. ragwort.

Legume Hay/Alfalfa

Legume hay tends to have higher protein, calcium, and energy content compared to grass hay, which can be beneficial for horses with higher nutrient requirements, such as underweight horses, growing horses, lactating mares, or horses in intense work.

Given the higher-quality protein of legume hay, it is also a source of essential amino acids that support muscle development, tissue repair, and the general health of our horses. Legume hays also tend to be more digestible than grass hays.

Legume hay can be fed in combination with grass hay to balance the nutrient intake and provide variety in the diet.

Some horses may have dietary sensitivities or metabolic conditions that require lower-calorie options, in which case grass hay or a mix of grass and legume hay might be more suitable.



This forage is similar to hay, but it undergoes a different preservation process.

The grass is cut at a slightly higher moisture content compared to traditional haymaking. It is then wilted for a few hours. After the wilting process, the grass is packed into bales and usually wrapped in plastic to create an airtight seal, so the grass undergoes anaerobic fermentation resulting in the production of lactic acid, which aids preservation.

This fermentation process produces a moist, slightly acidic forage that not only tastes good (as far as horses are concerned) but also retains more nutrients compared to traditional hay.

Haylage is usually softer and more flexible than hay, making it easier to chew and digest for horses, particularly those with dental issues or respiratory sensitivities.

Note: haylage requires proper storage to maintain its quality. Once the bales are opened, haylage should be used relatively quickly to prevent deterioration.



Hay and the Overweight Horse

For especially good doers, there are several low-energy forage options that provide the necessary fibre while limiting calorie intake.

  • Mature Grass Hay. Harvested at a later stage of growth, mature hay tends to have lower energy and sugar content compared to early-cut, lush, grass hay.

  • Straw. Oat or barley straw has a lower nutritional value and energy content compared to other forages, but it still provides the necessary fibre. However, straw should be used in moderation and mixed with other forages to avoid potential nutrient deficiencies.

  • Soaked Hay. Soaking hay in water for between 30 minutes and two hours can help reduce the sugar and calorie content. The downside is that you may also lose some nutrients.

  • Hay Cubes or Pellets. Processed forage products such as these offer a more controlled nutrient profile and they are typically lower in sugar and starch content than traditional hay.

  • Grazing Muzzles. If you want all the freedom of the field without the calorie intake, a grazing muzzle can help restrict how much your horse eats while out.


Hay Dangers

While nutrient content is a concern, contaminants in hay are a worry. Here are a few to watch out for:

  • Mould and Dust. Mouldy hay may contain fungi or mycotoxins that can cause respiratory and digestive issues, along with other health problems. Dusty hay can also contribute to respiratory irritations or allergies in horses.

  • Weeds and Toxic Plants. While hay should be free of these dangers, it’s worth knowing that certain plants, even in small amounts, can contain toxic compounds that cause various health issues. Plants to look out for include: ragwort; all parts of the yew plant; oleander; red maple; black walnut; deadly nightshade; horse nettles; hemlock; buttercups; bracken fern; and certain foxtail grasses.

  • Foreign Objects. You’ll be amazed – and alarmed – at what can get rolled into your hay bale, so keep an eye out for wire, plastic, or anything else that might cause injury or digestive issues to your horse.

bottom of page