Many horse owners are opting to soak their hay, but why has this become so popular and is it really necessary? There are many options when it comes to feeding forage that making the right choice can be a bit of a minefield but there are some key benefits that may mean soaked hay is the right choice for your horse.
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What are the benefits to soaking hay?
1) To reduce the respirable particles present in the hay
Respirable particles such as dust and mould spores can wreak havoc with your horse’s respiratory system. If your horse is coughing and blowing their nose regularly, often with a mucky runny nose then these particles might be the cause. If inhaled, they can cause irritation of the airways leading to inflammation and possibly even infection.
It is worth contacting your vet, if your horse suffers with any of these symptoms, to investigate further as it is possible your horse may have equine asthma. Your vet can advise you on treatment and management options, but soaking your hay is a good place to start! Remember to make sure you have good quality hay that is stored in a clean, dry environment to reduce the likelihood of dust and mould spores building up.
2) To decrease the content of water soluble carbohydrates (WSCs)
Water soluble carbohydrates are also known as “simple sugars” which are found in high levels in grains such as oats and barley. But they are also present in much lower levels in grasses. As the name suggests, they can be dissolved in water; however, it also means they are easily digested in the small intestine. Horses are primarily hind-gut fermenters, so forages such as hay are necessary to maintain a healthy digestive tract.
The issue arises if you have a horse who is overweight; has Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS); or is prone to laminitis as even small quantities of these WSCs can cause issues. Soaking the hay for at least 30-60 minutes prior to feeding removes these WSCs into the water creating a forage that is lower in simple sugars, making it much safer to feed to those horses.
What are the issues with soaking hay?
- Soaked hay should be fed immediately otherwise it will start to go mouldy and have to be thrown on the muck heap.
- A large volume of water is needed which must be disposed of after each batch of hay. This is to ensure the concentration gradient from the hay to water is great enough for the sugars to dissolve out, otherwise the soak will be ineffective and the WSC’s will remain in the hay.
- Horses who struggle to maintain condition (e.g. geriatrics) should not be fed soaked hay as they need those WSCs that are lost in the soaking water, unless this is compensated for with hard feed. If these horses have concurrent respiratory issues then an alternative forage may be better suited to them.
- Soaking the hay for too long results in losing vital nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus. It is recommended to soak hay for 30-60 minutes before feeding.
What are the alternatives?
This also removes dust and mould spores as well as the sugars. It also leeches less of the vital nutrients, however one downfall is that hay steamers can be very expensive.
This lightly-fermented (but still horse-safe) forage is great for horses who have respiratory issues as it should have no dust or spores present inside the wrap. And there is none of the hard work involving heavy buckets of water needed for soaking hay! However, it has a much higher nutritional and energy value than hay, meaning it is not suitable for horses on a restricted diet such as laminitics.
To soak or not to soak?
Soaking hay is a great choice for horses with respiratory issues or those on a restricted diet. However there are other options available. Consult your vet if you think your horse may need soaked hay, to see if that is the right option for them.