As an anxiety-prone horse owner, I tried to be diligent about my horse’s diet, perhaps to a fault. It can be overwhelming searching for the correct resources on equine dietary needs – enough to make anyone’s head spin once they take a spin through the dark corners of the horsey internet. Hay is one thing I confess I didn’t receive a stellar education on. Hay is hay, right? I explored the topic of various types of hay before, but one thing I recently learned about is the concept of hay testing.

Hay testing? Your barn manager might be very familiar with this process – or not. It’s an important habit to pick up, though, says Dr. Stephen Duren, PhD, of Performance Horse Nutrition LLC. The process of testing hay is relatively simple and cost effective. Several labs across the country offer the testing, which gives a breakdown of the nutrients found in your hay.

Why is testing hay important, you may ask? The quality and nutrient content of your hay can affect the rest of a horse’s diet – if his hay is not providing the proper amount of nutrients or calories, you might need to help with grain and/or supplements. After all, horses are naturally foraging animals, so access to high-quality forage is of paramount importance, regardless of their discipline or work-load. Remember: if anything, forage is the most important part of your horse’s diet, as a naturally foraging animal.

Want to learn more? Read more on various hay types and the key differences here.

“If you’re going to test hay, you need to be able to buy a large enough load that you can get the test results back before the hay is gone, to make any adjustments to your next order,” Dr. Duren explains. “The test will tell you what’s in your hay, and what you need to do as far as your grain is concerned to complement that.”

Dr. Duren expanded on the fact that hay quality and type varies by region – some hays, such as grass hays (timothy, orchard, brome, coastal), are naturally lower in protein, whereas legume hay (alfalfa, clover) have a higher protein content. From there, the hay test can provide a more complete picture – mineral content, such as calcium and phosphorus, and trace minerals such as copper and zinc can all be accounted for to determine areas where your horse’s diet might need some tweaks.

Here’s the other interesting thing about hay testing and an argument for being a discerning hay purchaser to begin with: the time period when hay is cut can also be a big factor in nutritional content. The taller a plant is, the more the nutrients have to “spread out”, therefore making each bite of hay less packed with nutrients than a cut that comes from shorter plants. Other factors, such as weather and choice of or use of fertilizers, can also play a large role in nutrient content. While Standlee Premium Western Forage is grown in Idaho with irrigation options that ensure consistent quality, not every location has this luxury, so it’s important to be discerning when choosing your hay supplier.

Analyzing your hay may seem like an unnecessary or tedious task, but formulating a good nutrition program does not just mean grain and supplements. Hay is not just hay – much more lies beneath the surface, and as a majority part of any horse’s diet this is an area in which we should all be well-versed.