What is the right amount of hay for my horse and how should I feed it?

Many parts of Australia have experienced very low rainfall, and subsequently, very poor pasture growth. As the weather gets cooler, we are getting a lot of questions from horse owners with little or no pasture, on how best to replace the grass component of their horse’s diet. The choice of possible hay types, given the current season, may be more down to availability than any other factors, but where available, a good quality pasture/meadow/grass hay is normally a good starting point. No matter what sort of hay you can get (and provided your horse or pony doesn’t have any additional issues affecting hay type/consumption), the guidelines around amounts generally follow the same rules. Here is a quick guide to the main questions.

How much hay should I feed?

Horses need to eat a minimum of 1-1.5% (on a Dry Matter basis) of their body weight in roughage per day just to keep their gut happy and healthy. Majority of hays contain around 85-90% dry matter. Horses will typically consume between 2-2.5% of their body weight overall each day as a combination of pasture, hay and hard feed (though we have all come across some notable ponies who are out to set the record for more). Ideally, most horses and ponies should receive 70% roughage (or more) as part of their daily diet. We have attached an easy reference table with the minimum roughage and average total feed intakes for most sizes of horses and ponies.

How much hay to a bale?

Small square bales:

Small squares are very popular as they are easy to handle and store and don’t have much wastage, and are very easy to control and monitor how much your horse is eating. There is quite a large range in weights to small squares, most commonly between 17-26kg. The bales are divided into biscuits/slabs/flakes which vary per bale, normally between 10-14 dependant on size and density. The biscuit/slab/flake weights can also vary from around 0.9kg to 3.2kg.

Round bales/Large square bales:

These can be more economical but can be harder to handle and move around, and can require more specialised equipment. If supplying as free access/ad lib, there can be more wastage (hay also seems to make a lovely bed or toilet for some horses).

Quick conversions:

4 foot round bales are normally the equivalent of 10-12 small squares

5 foot round bales are normally the equivalent of 15-18 small squares

8x4x3 foot large square bales are normally the equivalent of 20-24 small squares

What is the easiest way to weigh my hay?

There are a couple of simple ways to make sure you know how much you are feeding.

1. Weigh bale, divide by biscuit/slab/flake number

ie – bale weight = 22kg, and there are 11 biscuits/bale – 22/11 = 2kg per biscuit

2. Weigh haynet/bag – according to eBay, there are cheap sets of hanging scales (around $3 delivered)

How and when should I feed the hay?

Horses are designed to constantly eat (most spend 17 hours per day eating), so having hay available all the time is the best option to mimic this if your horse has no pasture. Horses stomachs are continuously secreting stomach acid, and excess acid can accumulate if the horse has an empty stomach for more than about 3 hours. This accumulation of stomach acid can result in various issues such as ulcers, diarrhoea, behavioural problems or even colic. To help alleviate these issues, or just to increase their fibre content, horses will often continue chewing to produce saliva (on fences, trees and in some cases their own manure), which acts as a natural antacid.

In an ad lib scenario, horses normally consume around 0.5kg hay per hour, and will usually spend a larger proportion of their daylight hours eating than at night. Most horses are able to self- regulate their intake, but you may find if the horse is not used to the ad lib access, they may eat very quickly in the beginning. Normally they will calm and eat only what they need to maintain a healthy weight. The best way to ‘feed out’ ad lib is to monitor your horse’s consumption, so they just have a small amount of hay left over when you go to top up. Hay can be fed on the ground, in feeders, or in nets/bags/pillows etc. Providing a mat for your hay to be fed on is a good idea if you live in a sandy area, or there is not much ground cover and your horse is at risk of picking up sand/dirt etc if fed directly off the ground.

The increase in use of ‘slow feeder’ nets and bags over the last few years has been enormous. The small to medium hole nets (1 to 1.75 inch openings) have been shown to reduce consumption time by 33% compared to hay fed in large hole (6 inch openings) or off the ground, and can stop hay from falling out and blowing away. These have been very valuable tools for horses whose weight needs to be monitored closely, or horses who have a tendency to get too heavy. Please ensure if you are using a slow feeder your horse is still consuming an adequate amount of hay per day (even if it is taking them a long time to eat it).

Please contact Hi Form on (03) 9775 6422 if you have any questions regarding your horse’s diet.