How Much Hay Does a Horse Eat?

Written by: Annemarie Dutton
Last updated on:

Anyone taking care of horses knows it’s a lot of work. Horses require spacious ground, regular exercise, and cleaning.  However, the most essential and demanding part of taking care of horses is determining a proper diet.

In this article, we will explore the nutrient value of hay and answer the question: how much hay does a horse eat?

How Much Hay to Feed Your Horse

Feeding your horses too much or too little will jeopardize their health. Instead, each horse needs the right amount of food. You should calculate the right amount of food, especially hay. 

According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, a full-grown horse should eat about 12 to 15 pounds (5.4 to 6.8 kg) of hay a day. That is 1.5% to 3% of its body weight if it weighs about 1,000 pounds (450 kg). 

It is a very rough average, and horses may require more or less depending on their metabolism, workload, what else they may be eating, and the time of year. Ponies will require considerably less, while large draft breeds can eat 30 pounds (13.6 kg) a day or more.

Alternatively, you can use a tape measure to calculate a horse’s approximate body weight.  Calculations formulas are as follows:

Girth x girth x body length / 300 = adult horse weight in pounds

Girth x girth x body length / 299 = pony weight in pounds

Girth x girth x body length / 301 = yearling weight in pounds

Girth x girth x body length / 280 = weanling weight in pounds

The horse’s diet also requires adjustments if the horse is still growing or if the female horse is pregnant or nursing a foal.

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Acceptable Nutrient Ranges Of Hay

NutrientGrass HayMixed HayLegume Hay
Dry Matter (%)90 – 9590 – 9590 – 95
Crude Protein (%)8 – 1412 – 16>16
ADF (%)<40<40<34
NDF (%)>55>40>35
Calcium (%)0.25 – 0.650.6 – 1.21.2 – 1.8
Phosphorus (%)0.15 – 0.350.2 – 0.40.15 – 0.35
Copper (ppm)6 – 156 – 156 – 15
Zinc (ppm)15 – 4015 – 4015 – 40

Always remember, along with the chemical quality, hay should also be of good physical quality.

Nutritional Value of Hay While in Storage

Hay begins to lose its nutritional value once cut and continues to lose nutrients both while drying in the field, and while in storage.

Conversely, the protein and mineral content of hay is quite stable.

The nutrients most affected by harvesting and storing are vitamins.  Hay may lose approximately 50% of the vitamin A content during the first 24 hours of the curing process. 

Vitamin loss is greater if the hay is subjected to rain or other weather damage. Vitamin depletion continues during storage, with the rate of destruction determined by temperature, exposure to air and sunlight, and length of storage.

Hay Bales and Hay Flakes

To track how much hay a horse eats more accurately, it is recommended that you divide the hay into smaller portions.  You can separate the hay bales into flakes and divide the sections.

The number of flakes in a bale is not always the same, but you could probably get a dozen of them from each square bale. Knowing an average bale of hay weighs about 60 pounds (23 kg), you can quickly calculate the weight of each flake.

The math is not complicated at all. Count the number of flakes in a bale and divide the bale’s weight by the number of flakes. Since you know that a bale of 60 pounds (27 kg) has 12 flakes, each weighs 5 pounds (2.3 kg).

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When to Feed Your Horse Hay

You should keep your horse on a consistent feeding schedule, with meals arriving at the same time each day. An abrupt change in schedule doesn’t harm most horses, but for horses prone to colic, a sudden change in routine can be more than an annoyance and might be enough to trigger a colic episode.

Ideally, you should wait an hour after your horse has finished a meal before riding them. However, if you’re going to do something strenuous, it should be three hours. 

A full digestive system gives the horse’s lungs less room to work and makes exercise much harder on them. In addition, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive organs during periods of exertion, so gut movement slows, and colic may be a real danger. 

When feeding a horse after work, let them cool down completely. Their breathing rate should be normal, and their skin should not feel hot or sweaty.

Feeding Horses Hay in Winter

During winter, pasture grass is limited, so you should adjust your horse’s food rations when it comes to this time of the year.  

Horses get most calories and nutrients from hay. In other words, you should provide more hay in winter than in summer.

Another reason why sufficient hay supply is crucial for horses when it is cold is because it keeps them warm. Digesting hay produces energy, raising the horse’s body temperature. So, the colder it gets outside, the more hay your horse needs to eat to get the desired warming effect.


Feeding your horse too little or too much can jeopardize its health.  Providing your horse with the right amount of hay is therefore crucial.  You should always consider your horse’s size, breed, and the amount of work it does when determining its diet.

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