Hey! Want to know more about hay?
There are so many different types of hay and it can get confusing when you start to try figuring out which hay to use and why. Or which hay to avoid and why. Here is my hay by hay take on… hay:
Horses love lucerne so you rarely ever get ‘meals sent back to the kitchen’. Lucerne is also super nutritious; it contains lots of minerals (especially calcium), is rich in fibre and high in quality protein.
Lucerne hay is LOW in starch and water soluble carbohydrates (collectively known as the non-structural carbohydrates or NSC). Which means lucerne hay is SAFE for laminitic horses and ponies.
It is also high in calories, which makes it the perfect hay for horses needing to gain weight and build muscle.
I love lucerne as part of almost every horse’s diet. It adds great nutrition and it brings the aspect of variety in the form of a legume forage to the diet.
It is a high calorie hay so for horses who are overweight it can be an issue. You need to feed it in very restricted amounts as it is easy to make horses too fat on too much lucerne.
Lucerne’s high protein levels mean you can feed too much protein if you feed too much lucerne. For most horses this isn’t an issue. But for horses in stables it means their boxes will be wet and smelly (as they need to drink a lot and urinate more to rid the excess nitrogen from the protein out of their body). This excessive urination can also lead electrolyte depletion and in extreme cases, tying up in working horses. It is important to remember though that it is not the lucerne causing this as such. It is the excess protein. So if you feed appropriate amounts of lucerne, you won’t see these issues.
Its high calcium characteristic also needs to be managed carefully, especially for growing horses. Diets that contain only lucerne for youngsters will often have a calcium: phosphorus ratio that is too high, which can then cause phosphorus deficiency and may affect correct bone development.
Lucerne for gut health: A big thumbs up! Studies show lucerne helps gastric ulcers heal. It is a natural buffer so it is a great forage to feed just before you ride or work horses to fill their stomach up and protect it from ulcers too. Plus it is rich in essential amino acids so it will help support the guts needs for the amino acids it needs to stay healthy!
When made well, horses usually love oaten hay. Being a ‘grass’, oaten hay is lower in protein so it can be used as the base forage in a horse’s diet without providing too much protein.
Oaten hay contains lots of great fibre. Depending on its stage of harvest and its starch and water soluble carbohydrate content, oaten hay may be anything from a high calorie to a very low calorie hay… if you have the luxury of choice and are using oaten hay, you can select which is best for your horses.
Oats is a temperate grass. So it has the ability to store LARGE amounts of starch and water soluble carbohydrates (WSC), including fructans. I have seen oat forage with 30% plus starch+ WSC (collectively called non-structural carbohydrate, or NSC); which means oaten hay must be avoided for any horses that need a low NSC diet.
An oaten hay with a high fructan content can also cause a shift in hindgut bacteria toward the ‘bad’ bacteria. Fructan is one of their favourite meals. When horses are on a high fructan oaten hay, you might see some of the behavioural changes and some loss of fibre fermentation (with possible issues holding weight) that we see in horses on ‘uncooked grain’ diets. Plus fermentation in the hindgut of a high fructan oaten hay can cause excessive gassiness and mild colic.
Not all oaten hay is high in fructan, but my advice would be if you are going to buy oaten hay in large amounts, get it tested before you purchase it.
Oaten Hay for Gut Health: It is a bit of a lucky dip. If you manage to get a low fructan oaten hay then oaten hay is great for gut health. It provides lots of fibre to keep the good bacteria in the hindgut healthy and it is a hay that requires a lot of chewing so it’s great to stimulate saliva production.
On the downside, if you do get a high fructan oaten hay it will feed the bad bacteria in the hindgut and may cause some discomfort from excess gas production.
Rhodes Grass Hay
This is one of my favourite hays, for many reasons… Rhodes grass is a subtropical grass which means it can’t store large amounts of starch or water soluble carbohydrates (WSC). Rhodes grass will usually have a starch + WSC content (known together as the non-structural carbohydrates, or NSC) of less than 12%, making it consistently safe to feed to horses that need a low NSC diet. Including laminitic horses and ponies.
Rhodes grass hay is usually a moderate protein, moderate calorie hay (depending on its stage of growth when it was harvested) so it lends itself well to being the base hay in almost any horse’s diet.
Horses don’t love Rhodes grass hay, so they will often take their time in eating it. If you have easy keepers on restricted hay diets, this is a good thing. It extends the amount of time they are chewing and salivating which should then reduce the risk of stomach ulcers.
For horses that are a bit fussy, Rhodes grass hay may be somewhat of a frustration. Other than that, there are really no downsides to this hay. It can make a valuable addition to any balanced diet.
Rhodes Grass Hay for Gut Health: Rhodes Grass Hay comes in with flying colours on the gut health front. Lots of fibre to provide food for our favourite friendly bacteria. Plus it is consistently low in starch and fructans so it won’t support the bad bacteria in any way.
Pros: Teff grass, like Rhodes grass is a subtropical grass species. So teff hay is ‘usually’ a low starch + water soluble carbohydrate hay (known together as the non-structural carbohydrates, or NSC). Making it useful in the diet of horses that need a low NSC diet.
Teff is a lovely soft hay and horses seem to like it. It is also purpose grown for horses so the quality of teff (or at least the teff I have seen) seems to be quite consistent.
Cons: Teff is not consistently low in NSC content. So some Teff is not low enough in NSC to be safe for laminitic horses.
Teff also contains a moderate amount of oxalate and has been observed to cause suspected ‘bighead’. When feeding Teff, careful supplementation with calcium is required.
There is also something very odd about SOME teff. Some horses seem to exhibit dramatic behavioural changes, which to me looks very much like the behaviour we see in horses affected by ryegrass mycotoxin. I see a lot of teff hay fed without any behavioural issues so most of it seems to be OK… just something to keep an eye out for if you do feed teff.
And if you are competing at a serious level, teff can also reportedly contain a substance called synephrine. Synephrine is a natural alkaloid, BUT it is an illegal substance and swabbable. So it is probably best to avoid teff if you are competing under rules that ban synephrine.
Teff Hay for Gut Health: I am still sitting on the fence with this one. Teff has shown itself as being able to accumulate non-structural carbohydrates and particularly starch. So it may be capable of shifting bacterial populations in the hindgut. There is also the odd behavioural changes in some horses that are associated with high fecal pH values. So I don’t think we know enough about this new kid in the shed to say for sure if it is good for gut health or not.