Visually Evaluating Horse Hay

Horse owners are always looking out for what is best for their animals. This is especially true when deciding on their horses’ diets and purchasing hay.  Good quality hay is the foundation of a horse’s feeding program, providing them with essential nutrients, and critical to maintaining gut health. However, not all hay is created equal. To ensure horses receive the best possible nutrition from their forage, every horse owner should have the ability to visually appraise hay carefully and correctly. 

What Does Good Quality Hay Look Like?

Appraising hay goes beyond just simply looking at a hay bale and evaluating it on its outward appearance. Rather, it involves not only assessing various visual indicators, but also can provide insight into a hay’s freshness, nutritional content, and suitability. Knowing how to visually appraise hay can help you make better informed decisions on where you source your hay.

There are some general key factors when conducting a visual appraisal of hay. These are important as they not only help evaluate a hay’s nutrient quality, but also its palatability for your horses. General guidelines on visually appraising hay include:

  • Color. Good, fresh hay for horses should appear greenish to yellowish in color. Any hay that is dark, grey, excessively brown, or even with bleached patches should be avoided.
  • Texture. Good horse hay should be soft and pliable to the touch. Hay that is “poky” or brittle can indicate the hay is too mature with lower nutrient content.
  • Smell. Fresh hay should have a sweet and pleasant aroma. Any musty or moldy smells can indicate very poor-quality hay. It is critical to remember to never feed moldy hay to horses, as it can cause severe digestive upset.
  • Leafiness. Good quality horse hay has a high leaf-to-stem ratio. This means the hay (especially legume hay, like alfalfa) has a high content of leaves as compared to stems. Alfalfa leaves should also be softer and not “shatter” due to being too dry.
  • Stem thickness. The stems of good quality hay should be thin and flexible. Thicker stalks are an indication of hay with a lower nutritional value.
  • Dustiness. When picking up hay or an individual flake of hay, there should not be excessive dust. Too much dust can irritate horse’s respiratory tract, especially those suffering from heaves or allergies.
  • Debris free. Any hay suitable for horses should be free from trash, weeds, mold, or other foreign materials.
  • Blister beetles. While rare, alfalfa hay produced in North America can potentially be infested with blister beetles, which are toxic to horses. While ranging in size, adult blister beetles can be as long as 2 inches in length. You can check with your hay supplier if purchasing alfalfa to ensure it is free from blister beetles.

These are general guidelines and should be applied uniformly to an entire shipment of hay. While there may be some minor differences amongst individual bales of hay, the quality should be consistent throughout.

Other Factors to Consider When Appraising Hay Quality

While visual appraisal of horse hay can help in evaluating its quality, looks can sometimes be deceiving. For example, a bale of hay greenish in color is usually desired. This generally means the hay was cured under optimal conditions. Yet, green hay can sometimes be devoid of key nutrients. Additionally, hay that has been partially sun-bleached and may appear more yellowish in color, can be just as high, if not higher in nutrients than some outward looking, green-colored hays. This is why the visual appraisal should also include looking inside the bale of the hay. While the outside may be yellowish due to sun bleaching, inside might be more green, soft, and pleasant smelling.  

All in all, a visual appraisal is important in determining the quality and suitability of hay for horses. Where a visual appraisal falls short is with an exact analysis of individual nutrients within that hay. Yet, some inferences can be made on nutrient quality by a visual inspection. When owners test their hay, they receive a hay analysis and receive information on:

  • Moisture content. The optimal range is 10-16%. If the hay is too dry (lower than 10%) it will be poky and brittle upon appraisal. If the hay is too wet, it is susceptible to molding.
  • Crude protein. Difficult to evaluate visually. However, a higher leaf-to-stem ratio would be a good indication of more protein in hay. This is because the leaves contain most of the protein in a forage.
  • Fiber. Hay with too high fiber content is less desirable for horses. This would appear as a more mature hay with thick stalks and a lower leaf-to-stem ratio. Much of the fiber in hay is stored in the stalks and not the leaves.
  • Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). The NSC of hay is dependent on growing conditions and cannot be evaluated visually.
  • Macro and micro minerals. This would be difficult to evaluate via any type of visual appraisal. Therefore, a hay analysis would be needed to receive these values.


Again, hay testing is the only way to be confident on the exact nutrients in hay. Yet, the visual appraisal can give you some confidence in the hay you purchase. It also will help in reducing any hay loss due to spoilage or mold. All leading to significant savings for you over time.

Finally, it is always worth mentioning to store your hay in a dry, well-ventilated area up off the ground. This will help reduce the formation of mold and reduce the chance of wicking moisture up off the ground. A good hay barn will also help keep the hay shaded from direct sunlight to avoid further sun-bleaching and loss of any nutrients. Additionally, a good pest control program is always advisable to reduce hay contamination.

If you have any questions about your hay and its quality or could use some advice, please feel free to contact us for a free consultation!

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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