Types of Forage for Horses & What Hay to Feed Your Horse

When most owners think about feeding their horse, their mind often jumps first to grain. But while grain may be top of mind, it’s actually forage that should be the foundation of every horse’s diet. Since your horse was designed to spend his days roaming and grazing on a variety of forages, that’s what his diet should primarily consist of, even if he isn’t able to graze all day on fresh pasture. At a base level, horses should be eating 1–2% of their body weight in forage every day. For a 1,000 lb horse, that’s 10–20 lbs of forage per day.

Depending on your horse’s individual needs, you can meet that requirement through fresh forage like grass pasture, cut and dried forage like hay, forage substitutes like beet pulp, and more! Plus, you can mix and match options, which can complicate things further. Here, we’ll walk you through the different types of forage available to help you feel more confident about the foundation of your horse’s diet.

Option One: Long-stem forage
Ideally, your horse should be eating mainly long-stem forage, such as fresh pasture or baled hay. That’s because as your horse eats, their bicarbonate-rich saliva mixes with the long-stem forage they’re consuming and protects their sensitive stomach lining from the gastric acid that they’re constantly producing. Plus, they spend more time chewing long-stem forage than they would spend chewing other forms of forage, such as hay pellets or chopped hay, which helps mimic their natural state of grazing on pasture all day.

Fresh pasture
What is it: The grass and other plants that can be found in your horse’s turnout.

How much you should feed: According to the sixth edition of the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, one study concluded that horses need to graze for around 17 hours daily to meet their nutritional needs. However, you’ll want to keep in mind that how much nutrition a horse gets from grazing depends on many things, including the quality of the pasture, the size of the pasture, the number of horses grazing in the pasture, the species of plants, and the maturity of plants.

Other things to consider: Acres of fresh pasture are hard to come by, so most horses need their diet supplemented with baled hay or another form of forage to meet their daily requirements. Additionally, because fresh grass is very high in simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches), it’s not the best choice for easy keepers, those prone to laminitis, or horses with endocrine, metabolic, or other disorders.

Grass hay
What is it: Grass that has been cut and dried into hay.

How much you should feed: Grass hay can make up the entirety of your horse’s daily serving of forage. For a 1,000 lb horse, that’s 10–20 lbs per day.

Other things to consider: Hay lacks some of the vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids that are found in
fresh pasture, so you’ll need to provide those key nutrients to your horse separately with fortified grain, a ration balancer, or a multi-vitamin supplement, and possibly an omega 3 supplement.

Legume hay
What is it: Legumes like alfalfa and clover that have been cut and dried into hay.

How much you should feed: Legume hay is more calorie- and protein-dense than grass hay. Because
it’s so rich, it should be fed in moderation rather than as your horse’s entire serving of forage. It’s usually best used as part of the diet of performance horses who have an increased demand for energy and is also beneficial for horses with a history of gastric ulcers.

Other things to consider: Although higher in calcium than grass hay, legume hay still doesn’t provide all the vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids your horse needs to thrive. To help bridge the gap, consider using fortified grain, a ration balancer, or a multi-vitamin supplement.

Hay changes
Because ancient horses were limited to the distance they could travel on their own four hooves, they experienced changes in pastures very gradually, giving their digestive systems time to adapt. However, we often change our horses’ forage rapidly, whether through moving to a new barn, buying hay from a new farmer, or simply feeding a new cut. Unfortunately, rapid changes in forage are a risky business.

Sudden changes in hay—including switching to a new cut from the same field—can increase in your horse’s risk of colic a whopping 10 times! And the risks don’t stop there. Digestive disruption can contribute to everything from mild diarrhea to laminitis and founder. That’s why it’s important to make changes to your horse’s diet as slowly as possible.

Option Two: 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 long-stem forage if necessary. Some examples of times when you might want to use one of these forms of hay is if there’s a hay shortage in your area and you’re unable to get enough for your horse, or if your horse is a senior who has trouble chewing and digesting long-stem forage.

Chopped hay
What is it: Hay that has been harvested, dried, and—you guessed it—chopped! It’s commonly made up
of alfalfa, timothy, or orchard hay, or a combination of those types.

Hay cubes
What is it: 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
What is it: 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: 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

Other things to consider: Unlike traditional baled hay, these alternative forms of hay
can all contain more than just hay. For instance, it’s common for chopped hay in particular to have molasses, so be sure to read the product label if you’re concerned about your horse’s sugar intake. Depending on the particular product you’re feeding, it may or may not contain vitamins, minerals, and additional protein or amino acids, so also read the label to be aware of what nutrients you’re providing. If the product you’re feeding 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.

Tummy troubles
Because your horse was designed to graze throughout the day, his stomach was designed to continuously produce acid to aid in digestion. In a natural grazing situation, where a horse is eating and chewing all day, the stomach acid produced is buffered by forage and saliva, keeping it from damaging the sensitive stomach lining.

However, modern horses are often fed large, infrequent meals rather than fed continuously throughout the day. This means that their stomachs sit empty and unprotected while gastric acid continues to be produced. Excess acid can then build up into the unprotected upper lining of your horse’s stomach and eat through it, creating painful ulcers that can lead to weight loss, poor performance, and more. That’s why it’s important for your horse to have forage in front of him as much as possible.

Option Three: Forage substitutes
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 like the ones listed
below, 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 discussed on the above, these products may be most appropriate for senior horses who have difficulty chewing long-stem forage.

Complete feed
What is it: 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 you should feed: Complete feed can be fed as your horse’s sole diet, or in addition to other forage types. Whichever way you choose to feed it, you’ll want to 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 it, you’ll use them to determine the amount that matches your horse’s age and activity level.

Other things to consider: If you’re feeding complete feed as your horse’s sole diet, you could have to feed 15 to 20 lbs per day to meet your horse’s needs. Because large pelleted meals could be problematic for your horse, you’ll want to feed it in small amounts throughout the day rather than in two large meals.

Beet pulp
What is it: 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 you should feed: Though beet pulp is high in fiber, it’s low in protein and provides very little vitamins and minerals, so feeding it by itself could create a nutritional imbalance in your horse. And because 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 things to consider: Beet pulp is a great choice for a variety of different types of horses, including senior horses who have difficulty chewing and horses with heaves. Because it’s relatively high in calories but low in sugars and starches, it’s also the perfect way 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 gap.

Hungry for more?
Now that you’ve learned all about forage, it’s time to finish building your horse’s diet from the ground up! Visit SmartPak.com/NutritionGuide to learn more about how to support a healthy horse with a smarter diet.