Debunking horse hay myths

By Amber Friedrichsen

Hay is for horses . . . but what kind of hay? While it is a fact that these animals require high-quality forage, there is some discrepancy between what horse owners believe to be true and what is actually true when it comes to hay selection.

Extension specialists with the University of Kentucky identified eight hay myths that have developed within the horse community. These were discussed in a recent issue of Kentucky’s Equine Science Review. Not everything about these myths is necessarily false, but they need some rectification.

Myth 1 – Second cutting is the best cutting

Cool-season grasses only produce seedheads once in the spring, usually near the time of first cutting. If producers don’t cut soon enough, fiber will be elevated in the crop and hay quality will decline. Because subsequent cuttings are not affected by seedheads, it has been assumed that hay from these harvests will be better.

Hay quality is dictated by its stage of maturity, not cutting number. “First cutting hay can be high-quality if cut early enough, and second cutting can be low-quality if cut too late,” the extension forage specialists remind. “High-quality hay can be harvested from late spring to late fall if weather and management conditions are right.”

Myth 2 – Horses require higher quality hay than cattle

In theory, this is technically true. Horses are monogastric, so they are less efficient at digesting fiber compared to their ruminant counterparts. Cattle can break down low-quality forage to access nutrients that horses cannot. However, hay quality should ultimately be determined based on each individual animal’s needs, not on their digestive system.

“An easy-keeping Quarter Horse in light work does not need the same quality of hay as a Thoroughbred at the peak of its racing career,” the extension specialists advise. “Consider the body condition, level of work, and pasture availability of your horse. Then choose hay that will meet these needs.”

Myth 3 – (Blank) is the best type of hay

Different forages grow in different soils and climates. If horse owners purchase hay from a new area of the country, they might attribute its variable quality to the type of forage it consists of – but hay quality is not related to forage species or variety.

Forages are either grasses or legumes. While legumes will be higher in quality than grasses if managed and harvested correctly, different species of grasses and different species of legumes bear little variation of quality within their respective categories when other factors are held constant.

Myth 4 – Stored round bales and silage contain diseases like botulism

Botulism bacteria prefer moist conditions. Round bales and silage are at risk of harboring this disease if moisture content is high, but it can be prevented with proper storage, handling, and feeding practices.

“Round bales should be covered when stored and fed using a hay feeder to reduce contamination from trampling and urination,” the extension specialists advise. “Round bales that show clear signs of mold should not be fed to horses.”

Silage is stored at a higher moisture point than round bales and must be kept airtight until feeding. Always test silage for forage quality, and consult a veterinarian about the use of vaccination against botulism to protect horses in botulism-prone areas.

Myth 5 – Don’t feed hay that has been rained on

Some of rain’s negative consequences include prolonging plant respiration, causing leaf shatter, and promoting mold growth in hay. Even if it has been rained on, hay can still retain acceptable quality depending on several factors. These include the type of hay, how much rain fell, the intensity of rainfall, stage of curing when it rained, and actions the producer has taken to mitigate the rain’s effects.

Myth 6 – Hay should be stored for six weeks before feeding

Hay can essentially be fed any time after it is harvested. If testing hay for quality, though, waiting six weeks will ensure test accuracy. When hay is put into storage, it will cure for four to eight weeks, and its quality can change slightly during this time.

“Feeding hay sooner will not be harmful to horses, but it will be difficult to balance the ration because the quality of hay is unknown,” the extension specialists explain.

Myth 7 – Brown hay is bad

Brown hay can, in fact, indicate it was harvested too late or lost its color due to processes like heating or bleaching. Although it is less likely that green hay would have undergone these circumstances and would be of higher quality, color is not a reliable factor to consider when evaluating hay.

Myth 8 – Feeding hay causes hay belly

Hay belly occurs when malnourished horses consume large amounts of low-quality, high-fiber hay. Animals will appear thin over their neck, withers, ribs, and hindquarters, but their bellies will be distended as a result of eating too much hay. To avoid this, formulate a balanced ration including high-quality hay. Horses will be better able to maintain ideal body conditions without eating an excessive amount.


Amber Friedrichsen

Amber Friedrichsen is serving as the 2021 Hay & Forage Grower editorial intern. She currently attends Iowa State University where she is majoring in agriculture and life sciences education-communications with a minor in agronomy. Friedrichsen grew up on her family’s diversified crop and livestock farm near Clinton, Iowa.