In the cold north, we look forward to the first few signs of spring, including singing birds, longer days and the many seed catalogs sent to us in the mail. 

As our thoughts lean towards horses grazing in lush pastures, we take inventory and sometimes realize that we may require a few more bales of hay to make it to this year’s first cutting of hay. With that realization, it’s time to find some new hay and review the signs of good quality horse hay to make sure you are getting the most value for your purchase. 

When you first realize that “forage,” or horse hay, makes up between 50 and 90 percent or more of a horse’s diet, you recognize quickly why we put a big emphasis on the quality of the hay we feed. 

The nutritional value of hay is the most important factor when determining its quality. The nutritional value is determined at the stage of plant maturity at the time of harvest. Young, immature plants contain more usable nutrients rather than older, “stemmier” plants. The overall quality of the hay is determined after it is cut and is dependent on weather, moisture and storage. 

To determine what exactly is good quality of hay for horses, we must keep six signs of good quality hay in mind: 

1. High leaf-to-stem ratio

2. Small diameter stems

3. Few seed heads or blooms

4. Fresh smell and appearance

5. Cleanliness

6. Hay color

Just as you prefer to have a nice leafy salad, so does your horse. Look for nice flat leaves in the hay and fewer round stems. You want this because the fewer round stems and more leafy forage indicates that the plant was less mature when cut. This means higher digestibility and nutrient content for your horse. 

Look for smaller and finer stems in your hay. Good quality hay feels good in your hand. If it feels like you are squeezing a handful of sticks, it’s not a good choice of hay to feed to your horse.

No matter the type of hay you choose, hay with little to no seed heads or blooms indicate a younger, early mature plant and thus, higher quality hay. For example, timothy hay should be cut in pre-bloom or early bloom stage with little to no seed heads and alfalfa should be cut when you see very few to no blooms. A common mistake is to wait and cut the hay late and then a lot of the valuable nutrition is already lost. 

   Good quality hay must smell fresh and clean. It must not smell moldy or dusty.  It should be free of dirt, mold and weeds. It should be bright green with little fading. Some fading on the outside of stored, dry stacked bales is okay, as long as the inside is still bright and fresh.  

Storage conditions and the age of the cut hay have a significant effect on the vitamin content of the hay and how your horse will digest and use it. Vitamin A and E are not stable vitamins. They loose biological activity after approximately six months. Exposure to heat, sunlight and rain only speeds up this loss of vitamins as well. 

It’s best to try getting the freshest, latest cutting of hay. You’ll have the most value for your dollar.

Here’s to a speedy spring and new hay crops in the future. Happy Trails! 


LORI RICIGLIANO is a horse judge, trainer, riding instructor, equine photographer and clinician. She also hosts a weekly syndicated equine radio talk show “Hoof Beats with Lori”.  Lori has held her horse judges license as a USEF / AHA - “R” rated licensed horse judge for more than 25 years and currently operates Ricigliano Farms Horse Training and Riding Academy near Kent, Minn. She can be reached by email or phone for any questions at 218- 557-8762 or riciglianofarms@gmail. com. Her website is www.


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