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Oh, Go Soak Your Hay! Why and How?


By Leigh Ballard

Why soak hay? Some horses benefit from eating hay which has been soaked prior to feeding. There are several horse health conditions that can be helped by adding moisture to the dry hay, and soaking can remove unwanted components of the hay.

For geriatric horses with poor teeth and difficulty chewing, soaked hay is softer and easier to chew. These horses often can chew and eat reasonably well on grass which is about 80% water, but hay is only about 10% water. A horse with mouth or dental injuries might temporarily have difficulty chewing and need soaked hay. And horses who are ill or recovering from an illness may not feel well enough to be drinking properly, so they could benefit from soaked hay just to help encourage a little more water intake. Ample amounts of moisture are needed also for digesting fiber effectively, which helps reduce the risk of impaction colic.

Excessive sugar in the equine diet has been found to cause a myriad of problems, from obesity to metabolic problems, insulin resistance, laminitis, and more.  Horses with any of theses problems are especially sensitive to sugars in their diet, including the sugars in their hay.  Soaking hay to reduce sugars is also often recommended for horses with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM,) a severe and recurrent form of tying up.Carefully controlling the amount of simple sugars and starches fed to sensitive horses is important in their health management. Soaking hay can reduce sugars by about 30%.

Soaking removes about 50% of the potassium in hay. Soaking hayis often a recommendation for horses with Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis (HYPP), a genetic muscle disease found in some American Quarter Horses descended from the Impressive bloodline. These horses are usually placed on low-potassium diets, sometimes even specially formulated feeds, to prevent their exposure to the high potassium levels found in pasture and hay.

Soaking hay canreduce levels of dust or dirt and mold spores that have accumulated during baling or storage.  Commonly called Heaves, Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) in horses is similar to asthma in humans. It is a chronic condition which worsens over time. A horse with heaves has an allergic reaction in the lungs when allergens like dust, pollen, and mold spores, etc. are inhaled. Soaking hay reduces and/or removes some of these allergens, or at any rate, prevents the particles from being directly inhaled.

If the goal is to remove harmful elements from hay, first have hay tested to determine the nutritional value as well as the sugar and potassium content.

Mature hays leach out less sugar and potassium because the hay’s outer covering is tougher and more impervious to water than hay that was harvested at a less mature stage. It’s a good idea to soak the hay, dry it, and then send it to a testing lab again to see how much actually leached out. Hay cubes and pellets are just like hay except they are tightly compact. They will not have the potential dust and mold spores of baled hay, but sugars and potassium content might need to be leached out just as for regular hay. Because pellets are so compacted, longer soaking time might be needed. Because they will disintegrate into particles, a colander type drainage and rinsing plan is useful, whereas for hay, you can simply pour off the water and then rinse it again.

How to do it:

Some tools are needed for the soaking process to go smoothly. Large buckets, large muck buckets, a trough, a dolly, a wheelbarrow, hay net, and a wire screen of some type to act as a filter are some of the possible items that will make the job easier. Use bricks or something heavy to hold the hay down in the water when it tries to float! Hay is heavy, so be sure to have a way to transport it when wet.

A wash stall is a great area to set up, or a spot on the ground where you can pour off the excess water. Don’t pour off excess potassium and sugar water in the same place each time as this will saturate those areas of soil with the sugar and potassium.

If you are just trying to add moisture to the hay for help in chewing and digestion, fluff the hay, add water just to cover, then pack. The hay will absorb the water, rather than leach out sugars, etc. Any water that does not absorb should be poured off before feeding.

For removing dust, spores etc., fluff the hay, rinse, give a short soak, and pour off excess water.

Soaking to leach out sugars and potassium requires longer soak times. The usual recommended times are at least an hour in cold water or a half hour in warm water. More water is used for this process than for simply adding moisture or removing dust. The longer the hay is soaked, the more sugars and potassium are removed. After a long soak time, important other nutrients start to leach out – so  be careful!

Horses don’t seem to dislike soaked hay. Rather, the “tastiness” after the sugars are gone might be something that some horses have to get used to. As always, consult with your veterinarian on whether you need to soak your hay and on proper soaking times to achieve your particular goal.

If you do need to soak your horse’s hay, there are several products on the market that claim to make the job easier. Among the devices are the HayDrator, the Paxton Equine Soak-a-Way, and The Soaker. There are also hay steamers of various brands, such as HayGain, as well as do-it-yourself models made from plastic totes.


University of Minnesota| Extension, “Hay Soaking: all washed up or a good management option?”
(photo courtesy of Classic Equine Equipment)

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