Hay Alternatives and Forage Substitutes for Horses

Updated January 29, 2024
dry hay cubes in a bucket

Fulfilling your horse’s nutritional requirements begins with forage and can be accomplished by feeding traditional sources like fresh grass pasture or dried and baled hay, as well as forage substitutes and alternative forms of hay. You can also mix and match these options to meet your horse’s unique needs.

Alternative Forms of Hay

Long-stem forage is necessary for your horse’s digestive health, but there are other forms of forage that you can use to supplement if necessary. Some examples of times when you might want to use one of these alternative forms of hay is if there’s a hay shortage in your area, your senior horse has trouble chewing long-stem forage, or to reduce the overall sugar content of a metabolic horse’s diet.

Chopped Hay

This is hay that has been harvested, dried, and chopped. It’s commonly made up of alfalfa, timothy, or orchard hay, or a combination of those types.

Hay Cubes

This is Hay that has been dried, chopped, and compressed into cubes. They are typically fed soaked, which makes them softer and easier to eat. Check the label to see what kind of hay was used, such as alfalfa, timothy, or a mixture of the two.

Hay Pellets

Like hay cubes, hay pellets are made from dried long-stem forage. The dried forage is ground and compressed into pellets. Hay pellets can be made from a variety of types of forage, including timothy and alfalfa, so check the label to see what kind was used in the product you’re interested in.

How Much You Should Feed Your Horse

hay cubes soaked in water

When it comes to hay, a pound is a pound regardless of the source. If you’d like to feed your horse hay in the form of hay cubes, hay pellets, or chopped hay, you should feed a pound of the alternative form of hay for every pound of baled hay you’re replacing.

For example, if your horse needs 12 lbs of forage per day and you want to feed 75% baled hay and 25% hay cubes, you should feed 9 lbs of baled hay and 3 lbs of hay cubes each day.

Keep in mind, there are no set-in-stone guidelines for feeding products that different companies label as hay extenders, stretchers, or replacers. Each product differs in their ingredients, vitamin and mineral content, feeding instructions, and percentage of how much hay it can replace from your horse’s diet. Carefully reading the product’s label or seeking the help of an equine nutritionist or veterinarian is a great way to get accurate answers for your individual horse.

Other Considerations for Hay Alternatives

Unlike traditional baled hay, these alternative forms of hay can contain more than just hay. For instance, it’s common for chopped hay to have molasses. Be sure to read the product label so you’re aware of what nutrients you’re providing, especially if you’re concerned about your horse’s sugar intake.

Depending on the product, it may or may not contain vitamins, minerals, and additional protein or amino acids. If the product doesn’t provide these nutrients, you’ll need to use grain, a ration balancer, or a multi-vitamin supplement to meet your horse’s nutrient requirements.

Substitutes for Forage

Besides pasture, traditional baled hay, and alternative forms of hay, there are a couple of other types of products you can use to help fill in the gaps in your horse’s serving of forage when needed.

If you’re considering using a forage substitute, keep in mind that while they may offer similar nutritional profiles to long-stem forage, they don’t provide all of the same benefits for your horse’s GI health. Like the alternative forms of hay, these products may be most appropriate for senior horses who have difficulty chewing long-stem forage.

Complete Feed

Complete feed is an all-in-one concentrated, pelleted product that contains both forage and grain. It’s designed to completely meet your horse’s needs for forage, protein, vitamins, and minerals when fed as directed.

How Much Complete Feed You Should Give to Your Horse

Complete feed can be fed as your horse’s sole diet, or in addition to other forage types. Follow the feeding directions on the bag to ensure your horse is getting what he needs. The label should include instructions both for feeding it without hay or pasture and for feeding it with hay and pasture. Once you’ve found the instructions that match the way you’re planning to feed, use them to determine the amount that matches your horse’s age and activity level.

Other Considerations with Complete Feed

If you’re feeding complete feed as your horse’s sole diet, you could have to feed 15—20 lbs per day to meet your horse’s needs. Large, pelleted meals could be problematic for your horse, so you’ll want to feed it in small amounts throughout the day, rather than in a couple of large meals.

Beet Pulp

Beet pulp is a highly digestible fiber product with a nutritional profile between hay and grain. It’s fermented by bacteria in the hindgut into volatile fatty acids (VFAs) which horses use as their main source of energy.

How Much Beet Pulp You Should Feed Your Horse

Though beet pulp is high in fiber, it’s low in protein and provides very little vitamins and minerals. So, feeding beet pulp by itself could create a nutritional imbalance in your horse.

Since it isn’t a true replacement for long-stem forage, it should be used to replace only up to 25% of your horse’s serving of forage. When using it to replace a portion of your horse’s forage, you’ll want to feed one pound of dry beet pulp (shreds or pellets) for each pound of hay you’re replacing.

If you like to soak your horse’s beet pulp before feeding, be sure to weigh out the serving before you soak it.

Other Considerations with Beet Pulp

Beet pulp is a great choice for a variety of different types of horses, including older horses who have difficulty chewing or those with heaves. It’s relatively high in calories, but low in sugars and starches, making it a great option to give hard keepers a cool source of energy.

However, since beet pulp alone won’t meet your horse’s nutrient requirements, you’ll need to use fortified grain, a ration balancer, or a multi-vitamin supplement, to help fill in the gaps.

Ask the Vet Video on Feeding Horses Beet Pulp

Additional Horse Owner Resources

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.