Hay Is Not For All Horses

Whether due to illness, availability or finances, sometimes you need to look at alternatives to hay. Here's what you should know.

One of the challenges for barn managers when hay is not the best or most feasible option is to find a suitable alternative. If you have a horse with a serious breathing problem or hay supplies are scarce or high priced, you need a replacement that will still keep horses healthy when forage choices are limited. There are a number of things that can be used for stretching meager hay supplies, and some can be used as a replacement for hay. But care must be taken to make sure these will actually work for the horses in your care.


Stephen Duren, an equine nutritionist based in Idaho (Performance Horse Nutrition), says some horses have respiratory issues or a disease that dictates a forage alternative must be fed out to avoid the dust in hay.

It’s often safest to use pelleted forage or cubes, to reduce the amount of dust. “This eliminates the natural stir-up of dust that would occur with a flake of hay. Pellets or cubed products can be either grass or alfalfa. You can usually assume that this feed will be good quality, since manufacturers don’t put poor hay into pellets,” he says.

If you would still like to feed hay, “Just having good quality hay as the ingredient will eliminate some of the dust,” Duren says. Overly mature hay (brittle and shattering) or hay that was put up too dry (and dusty) or too wet (molding) causes the most problems.

“With some special-needs horses that require low sugar products because they are overly sensitive to carbohydrates, pelleted forage products work, as well—avoiding some of the grass hays that routinely have high sugar content or using pelleted alfalfa products. Some other fiber sources can be digested like hay—things like beet pulp and soy hulls,” says Duren. These provide fiber and are healthy for gut function, but are also highly digestible and provide good nutrition.

“Soybean hulls (seed coats) and beet pulp have about the same digestible energy content as oats, and they are safe to feed—like a fiber—but contain more energy than hay. We see a lot of forage extender pellets that use the combination of pelleted forage such as alfalfa or grass, with added alternate fiber sources such as beet pulp, soy hulls or alfalfa meal as a means for keeping fiber level high. These can be used as a forage substitute or forage extender. But they typically have a higher calorie content than hay,” he adds.


Some commercial feeds contain more than 20 percent crude fiber, and this is enough to keep the horse’s digestive tract healthy without any hay at all. But all fiber is not created equal. Many pelleted or cubed products that contain alternative fibers like beet pulp, but other products may rely on fiber sources such as rice hulls or straw. “These can help with gut fill, but be aware that non-digestible fiber sources are not supplying any nutrients,” says Duren. If you are paying a premium for something the horse gets no nutritional value from, you might want to reconsider. Pick a feed designed to be a hay replacement, so it will have the right combination of both digestible and less digestible fibers—more like what a horse would be eating if he were on hay and pasture, Duren says.

Of course, there are some horses for whom less-digestible feed is a good thing—an overweight, retired gelding, for instance. “Rice hulls have very low digestibility; they’re like eating bedding. If a product is 15 percent rice hulls, that’s 15 percent of the feed that’s just going straight on through,” Duren notes. But it does fill the gut, warding off hunger.

All this means that you must pay attention to the fiber source in commercial feeds. This is especially true this summer. Duren warns that “beet pulp will to be in short supply this year, and manufacturers may be looking elsewhere for fiber sources.” Check labels, compare products, evaluate the contents and make wise decisions as you plan ahead for stretching your hay supply.


The big challenge when trying to find a hay alternative is that many horses, especially easy keepers, don’t need the extra calories contained in some of these pelleted alternatives. If you feed only the amount needed to maintain the horse’s body weight, he’ll feel shortchanged because of minimal gut fill and still be hungry.

“Rate of intake for pelleted forage is much different than with long-stem hay. The horse will consume pellets faster. A horse that’s an easy keeper will finish his meal very quickly, become bored, and since he’s not very full he will chew stall fronts, board fences, etc. to try to satisfy his fiber requirements,” says Duren.

If you have a horse that’s overweight and an easy keeper and you must limit his meals to a small volume of pellets, hay alternatives are difficult, because they have more calories.

“The only thing you can do is increase his exercise, to burn the calories so he can be given larger meals and feel more satisfied,” says Duren. “These are the hardest individuals to deal with. For the average horse that’s being worked, the forage alternatives generally work very well.”

If you have some long-stem hay available and can feed forage alternatives/extenders along with it, this is a better situation. This improves the healthiness of the diet, and if the horse is also active and burning calories, he can be given enough forage extender to satisfy his need for gut fill. “On the flip side, if you have a horse that’s not active, is overweight, and you are trying to use forage extenders, they often make the problem worse.

“These are the horses you should probably save some hay for, and use forage extenders for working horses. If you can get some local hay, so none of your horses are on a complete pelleted diet, this is better. They need some long-stem hay so they have something to do,” he says.

This highlights another precaution: don’t wait until you are nearly out of hay before you buy a forage alternative or forage extender. “Plan ahead. If you have X amount of hay that’s half the tonnage you would normally feed, plan to blend it all the way through the year, so you’ll always have a little long-stem forage available and not run out, even though nutrient requirements are being met by forage extenders or alternative products,” says Duren.

For example, if you only have three months’ supply of hay in the barn, you can use a complete feed for part of the diet and stretch the hay to last six months. For every 1.5 pounds of hay you are replacing, you can use a pound of the complete feed.

“Planning ahead is not hard. If you buy a truckload of hay at a time, and you normally feed three or four truckloads per year and can only get or afford two this year, start from the beginning and make dietary adjustments for the horses so the hay will stretch, and they won’t have a drastic adjustment when you run out of forage.”

If you are short of hay, you can also contact your county extension system. They put hay suppliers in touch with buyers. “In Texas, when they have a drought, the extension service puts barn owners in touch with hay growers outside the region, and can help facilitate large volumes of hay shipped in. People can order semi-loads of hay to share with neighboring farms and split the freight costs, for instance,” he says.






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