Hay growers should help horse owners choose the best hay for their animals, says an equine nutritionist at California State University, Fresno.

Horse owners lack nutritional knowledge and often make buying decisions based on other considerations, says Anne Rodiek.

“Many non-nutritional factors influence the horseman's choice of hay,” Rodiek explains. “These include price, availability, palatability and, unfortunately, also hearsay and old wives' tales.”

They want a consistent supply of soft, green, leafy hay that looks and smells good.

“They don't want variation in the look or quality of the hay,” she says. Horse owners also want uniform bales that are small and easy to handle.

Their hay should have a nutrient content that matches their horses' nutrient needs, Rodiek stresses. It may be a combination of alfalfa and grass hay. The best hay for horses is palatable, uniform and free of foreign matter and mold, she says.

Horse owners are divided about the value of alfalfa hay for horses. Some see it as a rich source of protein and calcium and a good source of energy compared to other forages. Some feed only alfalfa hay with no apparent ill effects. Others, however, feel strongly that alfalfa hay doesn't offer balanced nutrition and should be fed sparingly, or not at all.

Alfalfa has been blamed for a variety of health problems, including developmental orthopedic disease in growing horses. But some of the allegations have been refuted in research studies, Rodiek says.

“Alfalfa hay is still a very good feed for horses,” she states. “It is high in nutrients and palatable. It is great for growth, pregnancy and lactation. Alfalfa's protein, lysine, energy and mineral contributions to the diet are valuable. While it's excessive in protein and calcium compared to nutrient requirements, these excesses are not primary nutritional causes of developmental orthopedic disease.”

One trend is toward feeding more grass hay to horses. Grass hay tends to be higher in fiber than legume hay, and provides bulk in the ration. It's also lower in calories.

“Grass hay is great for maintenance, and gives idle horses more time to eat while giving them a chance to consume fewer calories,” Rodiek says. “However, it is frequently more variable in quality and palatability than legume hay.”

Grass hay needs supplementation for many classes of horses, particularly growing horses, pregnant and lactating mares and working horses. It's insufficient in energy and could also be low in protein and minerals.

Rodiek urges growers to help horse owners make good decisions when buying hay.

“Ask them what they think their horses need. Most horse owners will say, ‘I want them to eat the hay, I don't want them to be bored, and I want them to meet their energy requirements.’ Then you can help the customers learn how to find the hay that meets their horses' needs.”