How Much Hay Does a Horse Eat?

Having a horse can be very expensive, especially when you factor in the cost of hay and grain.  

Even if you have pasture for your horse, you will still need to feed them hay and grains, especially in the winter if you live in a cold climate.  You also have to consider the possibility of no grass if there is not enough rain.

How Much Hay Does a Horse Eat?

Horses do need to eat either grass or hay.  If they are eating grass, you need to make sure they are not eating too little or too much because horses can overeat on the grass.

A full-grown horse should eat about 15-20 pounds of hay each day.  This is 1.5% to 3% of their body weight.  Some horses will require more while others will require less.  It all depends on their metabolism, what else they are eating, the time of year, and their workload.  A pony will require less hay while a draft horse may eat 30 pounds or more a day.

How To Feed Hay

You should have a small amount of hay available for your horse to eat at all time.  This will mimic their natural grazing and is the healthiest way for your horse’s body and mind.  Do not try to feed an entire full day’s worth in one meal.  If you do this, your horse will gorge itself on the best parts of the hay and leave the rest to trample into the ground.  

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Many horses will self-regulate themselves but some will not.  Those that will not regulate themselves will need to have their hay diet restricted to keep from becoming obese.

cute horse nose

Small Hay Bales

On average, the small hay bale will weigh approximately 60 pounds.  The exact weight will depend on how long the bale is, how dry it is, and how tightly packed they are.  The next step is to count how many flakes there are in the bale.  The flakes are the easily divided sections that form when the hay is picked up by the hay bailer.  On average, there are 12 so you will divide the weight by the number of flakes.

If the flake weighs about four pounds, then you will need to feed about five flakes a day for your horse.  This equals 20 pounds of hay.

Draft Horses and Ponies

If your draft horse is working hard, then they need more than the normal ration of hay.  With a pony, they have very efficient metabolisms so they need a lower percentage of their body weight.  A small pony will only need a couple of flakes a day to keep them in good condition.

Why Monitor a Horse’s Condition?

The reason is that this will help you know just how much hay a horse should have daily.  You may need to make adjustments depending on how cold or hot it is, how old they are, how hard they are working, their overall health, and the richness of the hay.  All of these things will figure in when determining the amount of hay a horse needs a day.

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Types Of Hay

1. Legume (leafy)

  • Clover
  • Alfalfa

These have has the highest nutritional and energy value as all the other hays.  They also contain three times the calcium; have the highest vitamin content, and twice as much protein as other types of hay.  This hay is good for pregnant and lactating mares and growing foals, which have a higher nutritional need during this time in their life.   

The downside to this type of hay is the high protein content.  For some horses, like those with allergies or laminitis, it can be too much. The high protein hay can also contribute to excessive sweating and heat exhaustion for working horses in very hot areas

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2. Grass

This hay has a lower nutritional value but is considered “safe hays” because it is harder for a horse to have a reaction to grass hay or for them to overeat.  One benefit of this type of hay is that is easier on a horse’s kidneys because of the lower protein content.  It is easier to chew and digest because it has finer stems.  It is great for senior horses or those with dental problems.

  • Orchard
  • Blue Grass
  • Timothy
  • Orchard

3. Cereal Grain

This type of hay has not had the grain harvested and has about the same nutritional value as grass hay.  If this hay is harvested in such a way that it loses the seed heads, the remaining hay or straw will be of poor nutritional value.  It will only be good to be used for bedding.  This type of hay does have a high nitrate concentration so it is not good for horses with laminitis.

  • Oat
  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley
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What Type Of Hay To Look For

When buying hay, look for hay that is:

  • Bright green in color
  • Soft and pliable
  • Has been harvested before the plant has reached full maturity, especially cereal grain hay
  • Fine stemmed

Make sure that you avoid any hay that has a musty smell or shows signs of mold.  This type of hay can cause heaves, coughing, and emphysema.  Avoid dirty or dust hay.

Conclusion

  • Forage is one of the most important components in your horse’s diet.
  • For a domestic horse, hay provides most of their forage intake.
  • To sustain a healthy horse, the number of nutrients in it will play a role in how much they need.
  • On average, a horse needs to eat one to two percent of their body weight in roughage each day.
  • If you are feeding them good quality hay, like alfalfa, you will not need to feed them as much or use grain as a supplement.
  • If you feed your horses other hay besides legume hay, you will need to make sure that they get the additional nutrients they need by adding grain.
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