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Hay for Miniature Horses

An equine nutritionist describes what types of hay might be ideal for Miniature Horses and why testing your hay can help you ensure its safety for your herd.
Miniature horses need low NSC hays to reduce their risk of metabolic problems and laminitis. | Haylie Kerstetter

Q: I manage four Miniature Horses and am having a hard time determining which hay to purchase. In my area some farmers sell timothy/orchard grass mixed hay, but it is limited. Would a mix that includes alfalfa be problematic for Minis? What type of hay is best for my small herd?

A: Miniature Horses can be challenging to manage because they typically gain and maintain condition readily. When they become overconditioned, their risk of developing insulin dysregulation and laminitis increases. So, it is important to manage their diet to help them stay in a healthy condition.

When purchasing hay, remember that many factors besides the plant species in the forage influence nutritional quality. This list includes environmental conditions during growth and harvest conditions, stage of plant growth at harvest, soil health, and the time of day harvested.

Cool-season grasses and legumes differ in the nutrients they provide. Both timothy and orchard grass are cool-season grasses, but others include tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. These tend to be higher in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs) than warm-season grasses and legumes and lower in digestible energy and protein.

Legumes such as alfalfa are typically lower in NSCs than cool-season grasses, but they are higher in both protein and digestible energy content. So, your question about which hay type is best for your Miniature Horses doesn’t have a simple black-and-white answer because numerous factors beyond species need to be considered.

Normally, equine nutritionists and veterinarians do not recommend alfalfa for Miniature Horses because of the higher levels of digestible energy, which means it provides them with more calories, but a forage made up of only cool-season grasses might be too high in NSCs for Miniature Horses. Ideally, they should be maintained on a diet containing less than 10% NSC. If you live in an area where warm-season grasses such as Bermuda or teff are not available, a mixture of cool-season grasses and legumes might be an acceptable option.

Based on the description of the hay available in your area, I would reach out to a few suppliers about sending a sample of their hay for analysis prior to purchase to be sure the hay is safe for your horses. Testing a few batches of the timothy/orchard grass mixes, as well as those that include some alfalfa, would give you valuable information on their nutritional content that will help guide your decision.

If you send a forage sample for an equine analysis using near infrared spectroscopy (NIR, a method that helps determine the chemical composition of a compound by measuring how much near-infrared radiation the compound or solution absorbs), those results should be back within a couple of days and at little cost to you. The basic analysis will provide you with the sugar and energy content, along with other parameters such as crude protein. If the hay that has some alfalfa is low in sugar but not high in energy, then it could be a good match for your Miniature Horse herd.

Take-Home Message

Forage makes up the bulk of a horse’s diet, so having hay that matches your herd’s nutritional requirements can reduce feeding costs and management challenges. Alfalfa is not dangerous for Miniature Horses to consume but not typically recommended due to its higher caloric content. Cool-season grasses could be high in NSCs, which is also not ideal for thrifty breeds. The only way to know the nutritional content of the hay is to test it. Investing in a few basic hay analyses from a variety of suppliers will provide the nutritional information needed to help inform your decision. If you need assistance in taking a hay sample or interpreting the analysis, reach out to a qualified equine nutritionist or county extension agent.

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