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The basic care of a horse that is still growing vigorously should always be such that the youngster has permanent access to roughage. Hay is and remains the most important feed for small and large horses and must be available at all times. Horses are permanent feeders by nature and only take short breaks, during which they doze, socialise or play. It is therefore essential that they have constant access to hay to satisfy their need to nibble.

The hay should be of excellent quality. This means, of course, free from mould or other microbiological infestation. You can smell such spoilage quite easily if you stick your nose into a handful of hay that you have pulled out of the bale. If it smells musty, then it is spoilt. A microbiological hay analysis, which can be carried out if suspected, provides precise information (especially if you buy whole batches, you should have them tested beforehand if necessary).

Mouldy hay is not an option!

Mouldy hay is a considerable strain on the respiratory tract and can lead to chronic problems such as allergies to mould spores and thus chronic coughing. In addition, the mycotoxins that mould produces to protect itself are absorbed via the intestinal mucosa and have to be disposed of again via the liver and kidneys, thus placing a significant strain on the detoxification systems. Many moulds produce antibiotic substances that can severely disrupt the horse’s intestinal flora.

Ensure that the hay is of good hygienic quality during the up bringing of youngsters (and of course also for all adult horses), otherwise a winter with mouldy hay can have a negative effect for several years to come, during which restoration of the intestinal gut flora and recovery of a fully working metabolism is on the agenda.

Feeding hay in an open stable yard
1st cut is suitable as roughage © acceptfoto / Adobe Stock

What should be in the hay?

In terms of nutritional values, young warmbloods can have a more nutritious hay than young ponies. An early first cut, e.g. made in May, or hay from meadows with a larger stand of performance grasses is also suitable. Precise information about the nutritional values can be obtained by analysing the hay. Protein and sugar content in particular should be evaluated For horses, you generally want a sugar content of <10% in the hay (<6% for good doers), which also applies to warmbloods throughout their growing years.

High sugar levels in the hay drive up the blood sugar level. If this blood can’t be reduced through exercise (and a horse of this age is not in work to use its muscles), it can become accustomed to high blood sugar levels and thus develop insulin resistance.

In addition, all the sugar that is not adequately converted into energy has to be “disposed of” somehow. This leads to horses storing more fat or lymph (depending on their genetic predisposition). They may then look nice and round, but unfortunately this is an unhealthy rounding because it is not healthy muscle mass.

The protein values (crude protein) in hay are usually around 6-9%, which is perfectly ok. For a juvenile warmblood, you can also feed hay with higher crude protein values of up to 11%, but then you have to be careful not to add any other protein sources. If you have rather low crude protein values in your hay, then it is advisable to add some protein, for example in the form of sainfoin, vital cobs or lucerne.

Roughage management at a young horse facility

Hay nets

Hay should always be offered to young horses in such a way that they can nibble on it 24 hours a day. If you offer it loose on the ground, especially in an open stable facility, you generally have to allow for a loss of 50-80%, as it is being slept on, droppings will be deposited as well as mixed in with mud. Depending on the price of the hay, this is clearly too much waste. With hay nets, you can reduce the loss to <10%, there is also less hay flying around the yard and you produce less muck as less soiled hay must be disposed of.

The mesh size of the hay nets depends on the skill of the horses and the quality of the hay.
As a rule of thumb, the finer and leafier the hay, the narrower the mesh should be. The coarser the hay, the wider the meshes should be. This is partly because fine, leafy hay is easier to pull through the meshes and partly because coarse hay contains fewer nutrients, so the horses have to eat more of it throughout the day to fulfil their needs.

Horses normally consume 2-3% of their body weight in hay, i.e. 2-3kg per 100kg body weight. A young horse weighing 400kg therefore easily needs 8-12kg of hay per day. For growing warmbloods, there is usually no need to limit the amount, unless the hay is extremely nutritious. Otherwise, the horses will adjust to a suitable amount of hay all by themselves if hay is supplied 24 hours a day.
Unless there are already metabolically compromised youngsters in the group, the hay net is only there to limit the loss of hay and not to reduce the eating speed. This is why you can usually work with mesh sizes of over 4cm without the horses developing weight problems.

How many feeding places?

You also have to make sure that all horses always have access to hay. One hay rack for 20 horses doesn’t work, the higher-ranking horses will eat as much as they like and the lower-ranking horses will lose out. As a rule of thumb, there should always be 10% more feeding places available than horses. However, practice has shown that this is not always correct. Depending on the social structure of the group, you sometimes have to offer twice as many feeding places.

You can equalise situations and reduce stress associated with feeding by simply offering several hay stations. So not just one large rack in the centre, but 3 smaller racks distributed around the facility. This way, all horses can distribute themselves across the hay stations according to their liking and stress and unwanted hunger phases can be avoided.


The following applies to basic care: youngsters must have access to good quality hay at all times, which is absolutely essential for health and growth. Forced hay breaks (according to the motto: let them eat straw at night…) must be avoided, as well as stressful feeding situation, fighting over access to the hay rack as this also increases the risk of injury. Without a good supply of hay, you don’t need to worry about other feed sources, rather start looking for a more suitable yard offering youngstock facilities.

Read more: Feeding young horses straw – is that possible? or Feeding young horses equine-appropriately

Team Sanoanimal