What is the best way to feed hay?

I teamed up with Dr. Clair from Summit Equine Nutrition to answer this one.  As always, Dr. Clair adds some awesome "why" explanations so that we can all better understand our horses and how to care for them. 

Sure, your horse gets hay and grain and some supplements. Sometimes you stick to a schedule, and sometimes you feed when you can. Sometimes you stick to the same brand, and sometimes you buy what’s on sale. 


For hay, we do our best to mimic “horses in the wild” and how they eat, which is a little bit over many, many hours of the day. Think herds of wild horses grazing along, covering many miles and nibbling all the way. The reality is that hay flakes rarely mimic this. I have known some horses that can eat a flake in less than one hour! And, if you feed hay once or twice daily, this is pretty far from “horses in the wild”.


Feeding three, four, or five times a day can be a huge improvement over once or twice. Many barns start their feedings at 6 am, then three more during the day, and one again at night check at 10ish or so. This is not as critical for horses that are on quality pasture for 12 hours or more of the day, but we all know this is pretty darn rare to find. Sometimes you only have this available a few months out of the year!


Feeding hay more frequently and simulating natural grazing may help reduce the risk of developing stomach ulcers.Clair explains, “because horses evolved to eat constantly they secrete stomach acid constantly whether they are eating or not. Forage in the diet floats on top of the stomach acid creating a fibrous raft that helps prevent the acid that is in the lower portion of the stomach from splashing up and contacting the walls of the upper portion of the stomach, and this helps prevent ulceration of this delicate stomach tissue. Consuming a constant supply of forage maintains a constant protective raft. Add to this the fact that chewing forage results in saliva production which contains bicarbonate, a buffer that will help make stomach acid less acidic and it becomes clear that providing more frequent access to forage can be a real benefit in reducing ulcer risk.”



You can work towards a more natural way of feeding hay by using slow feeders or hay nets, which are a bonus for the bored or recuperating horse. Hay nets are great to hang in stalls, but be aware that eye level eating may not be ideal for your horse’s neck muscles. There are also nets designed for ground level use inside the barn and outside the barn, but these are only appropriate for barefoot horses. You can also find large hay boxes with slatted tops that fit about a bale’s worth of hay, they work the same way as hay nets, and can be used with shod horses. Clair adds that "If you really want to slow your shod horse’s hay intake down you could put the hay in a bale net inside one of these boxes".


Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to keep a consistent hay supply. Shopping around and switching suppliers can vary the quality, and therefore the nutrients, and may even upset some delicate GI systems. Work with a reputable broker and if you can, get large deliveries instead of going week to week. This can also save you some dollars by buying bulk.


Lugging around hay at a horse show is like taking the gym with you.


When going to shows for a weekend or even a week, I always pack my own hay. For longer shows (2 weeks or more) I always bring a weeks worth of “home hay” to transition to the new “show hay”. When I leave for home, I bring a weeks worth of show hay to transition back to home hay. Travel and show grounds are stressful enough without worrying about possible indigestion, diarrhea and colics due to hay differences.


When switching from one type of hay to another, I really like to drag this process out if I can. Dr. Clair adds that "while switching from say alfalfa to grass hay poses a greater risk than say orchard to timothy, even switching from one supply of orchard to another can upset some sensitive individuals. The bacteria in the horse’s hindgut that do the majority of the work in digesting the carbohydrates in hay are very specific to the diet being fed.  While hay of the same type can look very similar externally, internally the nutrient profile can be quite variable and this will have an impact on the bacterial population. The bacteria need time to adjust. Rapid changes of forage (or any component of the ration for that matter) can cause sudden die offs of bacteria which can result in loose manure or even colic and laminitis in severe cases”.


I always start on day one by adding some new hay in the morning, so that I have the entire day to monitor the horse and look for signs of distress. I will gradually increase the volume and frequency of new hay while reducing volume and frequency of the old hay. I typically take about a week or two to complete this process. It’s a pain, and I create a chart that covers the transition time so that I know how much of what type given when. Bad things happen when I leave this information in my head, I am a blonde after all...

How do you manage your hay feeding routine??