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What is Hay Belly?

Hay belly is the term for a distended gut in a horse resulting from being fed a poor quality or low protein feed without a grain supplement. This leads to the abdomen of the horse being distended due to an increase in the volume of feed and a decrease in muscle as a result of low protein intake. In some cases, the horse will have a poor coat and appear in poor condition, though in many cases the overall health of the horse is fine. Hay belly is more likely to occur in older than younger horses.

A distended gut in a horse due to being fed poor quality or low protein feed without a grain supplement is known as hay belly. 

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Symptoms of Hay Belly in Horses

Should your horse have hay belly, he will have a distended abdomen. His belly will stick out to the sides and hang down. You may also see his ribs and notice that there is not much body fat padding on his neck, shoulders and haunches. In some cases, the horse will have a poor coat and appear to not be in good shape. 

  • Poor coat
  • Distended abdomen
  • Lack of body fat
  • Ribs easily seen
  • Loss of muscle mass


A distended abdomen is also seen in horses that have worms. This is not considered hay belly and is a different problem. A distended stomach can also be seen in mares carrying multiple horses and some may call that hay belly.

Causes of Hay Belly in Horses

While some people believe that hay belly means that the horse is ingesting too much hay, this is not the case. Hay belly may occur when a horse has eaten too many low-value calories that lack sufficient protein. His body will store the calories as energy in his cells, however, without protein he is not able to maintain his muscle mass. The lack of protein will cause his muscles to atrophy and an increase in the amount of energy stored, leading to the loss of muscle mass and increase in gut size.

Poor quality hay or grass can lead to hay belly in horses. The digestive system of your horse is made to extract nutrients from grass and hay. Horses don’t have a way to break down fiber, however bacteria in their large intestine will ferment the hay or grass. Should the quality be lower, it will remain in the large intestine for a longer time period, which leads to the bacteria having to put in extra work in order to extract as many nutrients as possible. The extra fermentation that this causes will lead the belly to distend.

Your veterinarian will assess the muscle mass of your equine and may palpate the abdomen as a part of the physical examination. He may recommend evaluating a fecal sample and suggest a blood analysis to rule out other illnesses that can present similarly, such as a parasitic infestation.

Diagnosis of Hay Belly in Horses

Your horse will use protein to maintain or build muscle. If you notice that your horse has a big belly and little muscle mass, it is likely his food is of poor quality and he has hay belly. Fortunately, hay belly is not difficult to recognize; the horse will show a big body while the rest of him looks small. His mid-section may hang down, yet you can see his ribs and notice that there is not much muscle definition. 

Should you suspect your horse has hay belly, you can contact your veterinarian to confirm that this is indeed the case and to rule out another condition causing his distended belly.

Treatment of Hay Belly in Horses

When a horse is healthy he will not lose muscle mass, even when not ridden for significant time periods. Should you notice that your horse has a big belly while losing muscle mass, consider doing the following:

  • Begin feeding him a better quality of hay
  • If your horse is on pasture, provide him good quality hay as a supplement to his grazing.
  • Feed your horse a protein supplement like grain

Understandably, feed costs may be an issue. If you are unable to provide good quality hay, it is imperative that you supplement your horse’s hay with grain so that he is able to get the protein he needs. Consult with your veterinarian for advice on your equine’s diet as it is important to avoid feeding your horse too much grain because that could lead to colic and/or founder. Grain should only be used to supplement other feed and not as the only source of food.

Recovery of Hay Belly in Horses

Upon feeding your horse a higher quality feed and/or supplementing his diet with grain, you should notice a change in his condition. Should you be working with your veterinarian, you will want to communicate with him regarding any changes that you have seen in your horse’s condition after the change in his diet. Once your horse’s diet is changed and progress is made, you will want to continue to provide the high quality feed and/or grain supplements.