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10 Types of Hay & Which Type Is Best for Horses

10 Types of Hay & Which Type Is Best for Horses

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Hay is an important aspect of a horse’s diet. When selecting hay for your horse, you want a high-quality option that provides your horse with the nutrition they need.

The two main types of hay: grass and legume. Legume hay includes alfalfa and clover, whereas grass includes bromegrass, fescue, orchardgrass, ryegrass, timothy, Bermuda, and bluegrass.

There are also cereal grain hay types such as oat, wheat, and barley, which can be fed as a forage if it is cut young.

Hay provides horses with the protein, vitamins, calcium, and fiber they need for a balanced diet. In general, horses will eat 2% of their body weight a day in forage.

It is important to feed a horse high-quality hay that has been properly stored so they can receive the most nutritional benefits.

What is the Difference Between Legume Hay and Grass Hay?

Legume hay is a popular choice when feeding for energy and nutrition, as the protein level is generally between 16-18%.

Grass hay is an overall common choice as it is a lower calorie option and has a protein level between 6-10%.

Legume hay, specifically alfalfa, tends to contain up to three times more calcium than grass hay. However, grass hay meets the nutrition needs of the majority of horses while also making them feel full without excessive calories or energy.

Alfalfa is the most popular type of legume hay fed to horses, followed by clover hay. There is also lespedeza, birdsfoot trefoil, and peanut hay, but these varieties are far less common among horse owners.

Types of Grass Used for Hay

The most common types of grass hay for horses include bromegrass, fescue, orchardgrass, ryegrass, timothy, Bermuda, and bluegrass. However, there are other varieties including redtop, reed canary grass, teff, blue grama, bluestem, crested wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass, and meadow.

Most types of popular grass hay can be divided into cool-season and warm-season groups. Cool-season hay tends to be more palatable and includes orchardgrass, ryegrass, fescue, bluegrass, and wheatgrass. Warm-season hay includes Bermuda grass and bromegrass.

Cereal Grain Hay

There is also a special category of grass hay called cereal grain. Cereal grain is harvested when the grain is immature at the soft dough stage and the leaves and stems are still green.

If cereal hay is harvested after the grain is removed, it is no longer hay but is instead straw. The most common cereal grain hays come from oat, barley, and wheat plants, with oat being the most popular. When harvested at the right time it can be highly digestible and nutritious.

10 Common Types of Hay


Alfalfa hay bale with a white background

Alfalfa is the most common type of legume hay for horses, as it is high in fiber, protein, and calcium. It typically has a thicker stem and contains lots of leaves.

Alfalfa hay is generally only fed to horses that need higher energy and nutrition, such as top-performing show horses. It can also be a good option for underweight horses and horses with muscle problems as well.

Though alfalfa can be a great option for top-performing horses, it is generally recommended to avoid feeding it when horses are working hard in hot weather. This is because protein metabolism creates more heat than it does fat or carbohydrate metabolism.

However, the added heat can hinder a horse’s ability to dissipate heat, potentially causing overheating and dehydration.


clover hay bales

Clover hay is another type of legume hay fed to horses, though it is not as popular as alfalfa. Due to its high moisture content, it can be more difficult to dry and bale.

Clover hay comes in varieties including red, white, crimson, alsike, and landino, though It is commonly mixed with grass hay. It is high in protein, calcium, fiber, and other nutrients, making it a good choice for working horses.

Clover hay is more prone to molding and is also known to cause excessive slobber in some horses.


Timothy hay bale type with a white background

Timothy is a very popular choice among horse owners, as a good option for horses of various work levels. It is palatable as well as being easier on the digestive system than other hays.

Timothy is high in fiber and nutrients, but lower in calcium and protein than alfalfa. It tends to be finer in texture than other grass hays, which some horses prefer.

Giving horses Timothy hay is a great way to satisfy their appetite without adding excess calories.


Fescue hay

Fescue is low-maintenance and is able to grow in most conditions. It grows on approximately 35 million acres of land in America, making it one of the top producing hays in the country.

Fescue grows tall and broad, is low in sugar, and is palatable, making it a practical option for most horses. However, pregnant mares should not be given fescue hay as it can carry an endophyte fungal infection which can be harmful to makes and foals.

If you feed your horse fescue hay, you should have it tested for fungal infection prior to purchase.


Orchardgrass hay

Orchardgrass is fast growing while also being full of digestible fiber content. It tends to be higher in protein than timothy, with a good balance of calcium and phosphorus.

Orchardgrass is a good option for senior horses or horses with digestive issues. It is a palatable option that has a thick blade but a soft texture. Orchardgrass fields can be harvested as hay at least three times a year.


Ryegrass hay

Ryegrass is growing in popularity among horse owners as it is quick to establish and grow. In addition, it offers good nutrition, making it an overall good choice for most horses.

Though it does tend to grow well, ryegrass is sensitive to moisture fluctuations. It has a fine texture that is palatable to horses.


Bromegrass used for horse hay

Bromegrass tends to be a smoother option, as it provides more leaves and fewer stems. It offers similar nutrition to timothy, making it a great option for horse owners.

Bromegrass is a great overall choice for not only young and active horses, but also lightly-worked and older horses. This palatable option also provides additional fiber for a balanced diet.


Bermuda grass used for livestock hay

Bermuda grass, also known as coastal hay, grows in a variety of conditions, making it a common option for horses. It is generally the cheapest hay to purchase, which makes it a practical choice.

Though lower in protein than other grass hays, Bermuda is still a good source of nutrition for most horses. However, low-quality Bermuda has been linked with impaction colic, so it is important to examine the quality at purchase.


Bluegrass used as a type of hay

Hailing from Kentucky, Bluegrass is highly nutritional and palatable. Since it is low-yielding, it tends to be a more popular option for grazing than for cutting as hay.

Bluegrass is very tolerant of winters, but does not do as well in the summer heat. It is capable of growing a wide variety of climates and makes good forage for most horses.


Oat hay

Oat hay has thicker, tougher stalks and is cut between the milk and soft dough stages of the oat cycle. It is overall palatable to horses, but some horses don’t like the thicker stalks.

Oat hay is high in protein and other nutrients, making it a good option for a lot of horses. However, it tends to be high in sugar, which means that it is not a good choice for insulin-resistant horses.

What Types of Hay are Best for Horses?

Timothy hay is the best type of hay for horses. Timothy hay is extremely palatable and popular among horse owners. Alternatively, alfalfa hay is very good for horses too.

Timothy is popular because it is palatable, nutritious, and easier on the digestive system, making it a good choice for horses of various work levels and ages.

Alfalfa tends to be a favorite for high-performing horses as it meets their needs for higher nutrition and energy.

Other popular varieties include orchard grass, bromegrass, Bermuda, and oat hay.

What Type of Hay is Best for Cattle?

The best type of hay for cattle is alfalfa. However, timothy and oat hay also make excellent choices for cattle as well. These varieties provide cattle with the nutrients they need for a balanced diet.

What Should Good-Quality Hay Look Like?

It is very important to feed only good-quality hay in order for your horse to receive the most nutritional benefits. Good-quality hay should be green in color with little fading and have a sweet, fresh odor.

Hay should contain more leaves than it does stems. It should be free of dust, weeds, and other foreign material. Never feed horses moldy hay as it can make them sick.

Do Horses Eat Straw?

Horses should not be fed straw as it does not offer enough nutrition. If horses eat high amounts of straw it can cause impaction colic. Though not a suitable option as food, it can be used for bedding.

Though horses are not fed straw as a source of forage, straw does come from cereal grains.

When cereal grain is harvested at its immature stage with green leaves and stems, it can be fed as hay. However, if it is harvested after the grain is removed it is no longer hay but instead straw.