Will Feeding Too Much Hay Make My Horse Fat?


When I boarded my horse at a commercial facility, he generally got two flakes of hay in the morning and another three overnight. When it was really cold out, they might add a late night feeding. At that time, he also got 8 quarts of 14% pellets per day and an additional quart of oats.  At best, he was probably getting 6 to 8 pounds of hay per day. During the summer he might be out on grass, but the pastures really were more for entertainment value than nutrition!

Today, my horses each get 20-25 pounds of hay, which is pretty much all they want to eat. They get no grain — merely a ration balancer or multivitamin. They are both in good weight and seem happier, healthier and calmer. I can do this because they are at a private co-op barn where they are turned out together and where I buy the hay and can control what they are fed.

I came to this regime gradually, after reading about the healthiest way to feed a horse and consulting with an equine nutritionist, who came to my barn and evaluated my horses. It made me realize that while the commercial barn had a feeding approach that kept weight on my horse, the calories weren’t presented in the optimum way. At a commercial barn, you can’t control how much hay is fed to your horse (woe be the owner who sneaks extra hay into their horse’s stall!), but, even among my fellow co-op boarders, my feeding regime is an anomaly.

Most equine nutritionists recommend that a horse eat 1.5-2 % of its body weight in roughage (hay, pasture, etc.) and add grain only if it’s necessary to maintain body weight. So, if you have a horse that weighs 1200 pounds, that would be 18-24 pounds of hay per day. That’s significantly more than most boarding stables offer, mostly because 1) hay is expensive, and 2) eating that much hay causes more work, both in terms of picking up wasted hay and picking up more manure.

But it’s important for horses to have adequate forage. Horses evolved with stomachs that are geared to eat about 16 hours a day and their stomachs produce the acid needed to digest forage whether they are eating it or not. A horse that has no roughage to buffer that acid is more likely to have stomach ulcers and is also more likely to suffer from colic.

In addition to the added cost and expense, some owners worry that if they feed too much hay, their horse will get too fat. You know, develop a “hay belly.” However, many nutritionists caution that a hay belly is not the same as body fat. According to feed manufacturer, Triple Crown,

“A hay belly indicates that poor quality forage is being provided. The large intestine will retain poor quality forages longer trying to get as much nutrition as possible. That will stretch the large intestine causing the hay belly appearance. Good quality forage will shrink the hindgut back to normal size.”

Dr. Juliet Getty, an equine nutritionist says hay should be available to horses 24/7.

“Horses are very able to self-regulate their intake if given the chance. If they are only given a set amount of hay each day, they will likely eat it very quickly and will be anxious for more. But, if given all they want, they will overeat at first (for a week or less) and then, once they see that they can wall away and relax and the hay will still be there when they return, they will self-regulate their intake.” (Read the rest of her comments).

Certainly, you should take into consideration the nutritional value of they hay that you are feeding. Some types of hay, such as alfalfa, are very rich. To give your horse the volume of hay needed to meet the minimum requirements, you might have to feed a type of hay that is lower in calories, or might be a coarser, first cut.

In addition to needing the roughage from a digestive standpoint, having hay available during the day also helps keep your horse mentally stimulated. Horses that do not get adequate hay often turn to wood chewing as an alternative.

Generally, I try to feed my horses several times during the day. This cuts down on waste and keeps them munching. I’m also a big fan of my outside feeder. Since the hay in that is contained and off the ground, it stays clean and fresh when my horses take a break. The feeder is also an excellent way to give them alfalfa cubes at times when my baled hay is low in protein or when it’s difficult to obtain.

Nutritionists also recommend providing more hay (10-15% more) during the winter months as the process of digesting hay helps keep horses warm.

6 responses

  1. I have found that giving horses free choice hay with minimal grain works very well. The horses are content and very healthy. Of course the hay must be good quality. I feed a grass/alfalfa mix with a grain such as Purina’s Equine Senior for my older horses or Omelene 200 or 300 for my breeding or performance horses.

  2. You are certainly right about the dangers of sneaking extra hay. I got caught red-handed once and thought it was armageddon.
    My horse lives at a very nice commercial barn where the manager and I differ considerably in our ideas of proper diet for a horse. I’m in your camp, and she’s in the “sweet feed and four flakes of hay per day” camp. I have to be as stealthy as I can to remove feed from my mare’s bucket and plop in extra hay twice a day. Aside from that, the best I can do is to insist that she stay out twelve hours a day or more, where there is forage and grass available.

  3. I wish that it worked for my horse. I have a 20yr old QH that is overweight. I use to board at a commercial barn and I had watched her lose weight every winter . Now that I have her home I let her have access to good quality hay all day, and now she is fat. I don’t know how to decrease her hay without some bad habit developing, she isn’t fed any grain at all. what do i do?

    • One option for a horse that is gaining weight on free choice hay is to feed a hay that has fewer calories. We had a pony at a our barn like that. She got some “good” second cutting hay but then during the day her owner gave her a lesser quality hay to munch on so she could enjoy the benefits of hay without all the calories.

  4. Glad i found this artical as i was worried i was feeding to much of my alfalfa timothy mix to my horses and i was just a little under i was feeding 19lbs a day. and i was worried cause i feed a little extra as i had some scraps i threw out for them. this eases my mind a bit. thanks for the artical.

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