In the first post to the ‘Healthy Horse Secret’ sequence we talked about feeding quality hay as the primary source of nutrition and GI support for a horse. Now that we have established the importance of ‘good hay’ in a horse’s diet, the question lingers- Which hay is good??? The answer to this has a constant portion and a variable portion, and I am so excited to talk about both!
While avoiding dusty or moldy hay seems like a obvious objective, it is not always an easy task. We run into issues with dust when dealing with mature bales where seed heads have become prevalent and loose. With mold, often it is the opposite problem, the hay may have been baled more immaturely, with beautiful, green, leafy quality. However, if hay cut early has moisture levels that are too high, it is prone to mold either in large patches, or in bits and pieces around the bale.
While almost all hay will have some amount of dust and mold spores throughout, it is important that we ensure to keep the ailments to a minimum. In square bales, it is easy to pick through some flakes and make the decision to feed, or to toss. Even if we miss a poor flake and it goes into the stall, horses have the option to pick around the bad hay. Where watching hay quality becomes critical is when we put round bales out in a field. In these situations, horses typically have competition for food, making the food more valuable and more of a race to get into their systems. Moreover, if we are putting round bales in pastures, there are probably no other forage options at the time, making what we provide non-optional. Ergo- for the health of the horses’ respiratory systems, immune systems, and GI tracts, we need to ensure that all hay is safe to eat!
The second thing that hay should provide for all horses is at least some nutritional value. Again, while this seems like a pretty basic concept, too often I see hay offered to horses that is so mature, the horse could use the strands as straws to suck up water. As a rule of thumb-
Maturity in hay can be easily depicted by the physical characteristics. Green, sweet smelling, soft, leafy hay will be early maturity (higher nutrient value). If the hay leans toward being stalky, hard, and yellow/brown, having complete seed heads, the hay will be a late maturity (Less nutrient value). Remember, even easy keepers need protein, vitamins, and minerals, and where the bulk of a horse’s nutrient consumption comes from forage, they need protein, vitamins, and minerals from their hay.
Performance horses, heavily used school horses, track ponies, and work horses all have something in common- they have high nutritional requirements. As these horses need to maintain more muscle mass, they need the diet to support it. These horses typically do well with a forage mix of alfalfa and and cool season grass. Often we see orchard-alfalfa and timothy-alfalfa mixed in a bale, which provides a good balance of the nutrition from the alfalfa and the bulk fiber from grass.
Hard keepers are their own category. Generally horses that require intense weight management programs are lacking in some physical capacity. Whether it be an inefficient digestive tract, gastric ulcers, an insufficient microbial load, or other biological factors, horses typically have a reason for not maintaining body condition. Concerning GI health- alfalfa, immature-mid maturity grass, and alternative forms of digestible fiber (beet pulp, alfalfa cubes) are helpful in influencing a healthy GI environment. Less mature alfalfa is a great choice for GI sensitive horses because of the bio-availability of balanced amino acids, high calcium levels in the leaves, and highly palatable quality.
For horses who would be a bit too round on the rich hay suggested in the above category, we can offer good grass hay, with the legumes supplemented in smaller amounts. By ‘Good’ grass hay, I mean an early to mid-maturity (still green and sweet) cool season grass. Cools season grass hay, like combinations of orchard, blue grass,timothy, and local mixes that you would find in the Central US, offer relatively higher nutritional content than warm season grasses like Bermuda. The key for these horses is that if the bulk of their hay is too mature, they may become protein, vitamin, and mineral deficient. This is where supplementing a bit of legume hay or hay cube becomes helpful to balance the diet.
For our balloon ponies, we don’t have the option to feed highly nutritious forage in bulk because they would become obese. It is the tough life of a round horse. What we can do is optimize what works. For these guys, mid maturity grasses fed at a slowed rate would be ideal. If we can only feed 10 lbs of mid-maturity grass mix to maintain weight, then we can add in some more mature, more fibrous chewing hay, and a lb of ration balancer in order to meet daily nutrition requirements.