When considering your horse’s diet, it’s important to have some knowledge of the options available to you. Just as with feed and supplements, choosing the right hay for your horse and his needs is also an important decision. While some factors, such as what is readily available in your area, will also need to be taken into consideration when selecting the right hay for your needs, we enlisted the help of Dr. Stephen Duren, PhD., an equine nutritionist for some insight on forage.

“The choice of which hay is “best”, or which hay is most suitable for a horse is dependent on the nutrient content of the hay and the nutrient requirements of the horse,” Dr. Duren said. “The nutrient content of the hay is dependent on the variety of hay – for example, alfalfa versus orchard grass or timothy grass.”

Many horse owners will include alfalfa as a regular part of their horses’ diets. Alfalfa contains a higher amount of protein and calories with a lower amount of sugar, Dr. Duren says. In comparison, Timothy and orchard grass have a more moderate amount of protein and calories but a higher sugar content.

So where does alfalfa fit in to a diet? “Alfalfa forage is ideal for horses with higher protein and calorie needs such as pregnant or lactating mares, growing horses and young performance horses,” Dr. Duren said. “It’s also a good choice for reducing the sugar content of the diet in horses with diseases that render them sensitive to sugar.”

On another note, there is also an argument that alfalfa will make some horses hot. The factor to consider here is the caloric intake in your horse’s diet. Excess protein – such as that which can be found in alfalfa – is often thought to be responsible for “hotter” horses, but in actuality, Dr. Duren says, it’s the increase in calories that can alter a horse’s behavior.

As far as orchard and timothy grass are concerned, Dr. Duren recommends these for mature horses with lower protein and overall caloric requirements. “The lower protein and calorie content of these hays allow horses to have free-choice access to these forages without gaining too much body condition,” he said.

Of course, it goes without saying that consulting with an equine nutritionist or your veterinarian is helpful if you’re trying to formulate a diet and forage plan. In some areas, there are even more options for hay – coastal, bermuda…the options seem endless! So before you jump on a bandwagon, be sure to do your research and consult with the experts if you get a little lost. Your horse’s digestive system will thank you!