Forages make up an estimated 50 to 100 percent of equine diets and are by far the biggest single component of most horses'
daily nutritional intake in almost all areas of the country. In a hay-marketing survey published by Rutgers University Cooperative
Extension, 93.5 percent of owners in New Jersey and Pennsylvania indicated that they fed hay all year long, with 61.5 percent
purchasing it locally. The researchers involved with this study also found that hay quality was important to horse owners,
since survey respondents had specific preferences for certain types and characteristics of the hay that they would select
and buy (Photo 1).
Photo 1: The last few years in the Middle Atlantic and the Southeast were marked by an extreme drought and a lack of good
hay. This past winter has been much wetter, and the 2010 hay crop promises to be one of the best in years. With so much hay
available, horse owners should be able to select better quality hay at favorable prices.
This study, conducted in 1999 and repeated again in 2004, showed, however, that many of the criteria most important to owners
did not correlate to the best means of evaluating hay. Owners rated freedom from mold, type of hay (timothy, orchard, alfalfa
or various mixes) and absence of weeds as the three most important factors in hay choice. All these assessments were made
visually without any type of analysis.
The reality is that hay is an important component of a horse's diet, but there are no standards, and there is little continuity
in nutritional analysis of forage. Additionally, the method used by most owners to decide which hay to buy and feed is based
largely on subjective criteria.
"It is incongruous that manufactured feeds must have a guaranteed nutritional composition, yet forages are bought and sold
based on predominantly subjective measures," says Paul Sirois of Dairy One/Equi-Analytical Laboratories in Ithaca, N.Y., a
company offering forage analysis for both dairy and equine clients. Sirois acknowledges that forage laboratory services across
the nation have traditionally been there to meet the needs of the dairy industry, and the methods of evaluating hays have
heavily favored ruminant nutrition demands. But laboratories have recently begun addressing the special problems of horses,
trying to standardize equine forage nutritional analysis.
A large part of the driving force in this industry shift is the increased interest in carbohydrates (CHOs) in horse hay. CHO
content has been implicated as a possible causative factor in equine disorders such as laminitis (see related story on p.
6E), Cushing's disease, equine metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance — all of which have been increasingly diagnosed in
the last decade. Equine veterinarians have helped educate horse owners about the potential effects that hay quality and content
can have on their horses' health. Now it is time to make better objective information available to those discriminating owners
so that they can choose the best hay possible.
"Standardization of carbohydrate terminology is essential to fully understand the impact of CHOs on equine health and performance,"
Sirois says. Marketing of hay, from the viewpoint of both the buyer and the seller, would be greatly enhanced by providing
nutritional information prior to its sale. "High-quality hay could be sold at a higher price, and specialty hay, such as low-CHO
hay, would demand a premium," says Sirois.
Veterinarians can help this process by further educating their clients about better methods of hay evaluation and by encouraging
more forage analysis within the horse-hay industry.