Full Steam Ahead!

If dipping or soaking your horse’s hay conjures visions of wasted water, contaminated liquid, and too much time seeping away like the hay’s nutrients, another alternative for addressing equine respiratory and digestive complications presents fewer risks.

Steaming hay for healthier horses, available for nine years in Western Europe and a favorite method used in elite performance circles, has gathered its fans in North America with competitors and average horse owners alike.

A study, conducted in Europe in 2013 and 2014 and led by Dr. Julie Dauvillier and Dr. Emmanuelle van Erck-Westergen, examined four hundred and eighty-two horses that had been referred for a regular health check or because of poor performance or respiratory issues. All horses were scoped, and case histories and results were recorded.

“A horse can have a serious problem with their respiratory system without having obvious symptoms to where the owner can’t pinpoint what’s going on. The horse can have lower airway inflammation and not necessarily have a cough, nasal discharge, or heavy breathing,” notes Van Erck-Westergren.

The study found that eighty-four percent of the horses suffered from IAD. Seventy-two percent of horses presented different types of fungi in the airways. Horses with an IAD diagnosis had a 3.8 times greater chance of being diagnosed with IAD if fungi were found in their airways.

Study researchers tested dry, soaked, and steamed hay, as well as haylage using Haygain steamer prototypes.

Researchers found that steamed hay was the only method to decrease the risk of IAD significantly. Indeed, steaming hay reduced factors contributing to Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD) by sixty-three percent and eliminated aggravating allergens, dust, and other particles by ninety-eight percent.

The results of the study were presented at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in June 2016. To date, fifteen studies in four European countries tested the efficacy of steaming hay.

Inflammation in respiratory airways can be due to dust, allergens, bacteria, mold, or fungal spores, many of which can be present in a horse’s forage. Particles settle in the windpipe or tissues, constricting free airflow between a horse’s nose and lungs, leading to respiratory disease like IAD.

Improving a horse’s respiratory health is not the only reason why steaming hay is gaining popularity. Diet reduction of non-structural carbohydrates by as much as twelve percent in insulin-resistant horses, for example, can be managed at safer levels by using steam.

The founders of the company, Haygain®, believed that steaming hay would remove airway irritants while preserving nutrients, ridding feed of bacteria, and making it tastier for horses. In consort with Professor Meriel Moore-Colyer of the Royal Agriculture University in Cirencester, England, studies examined the effect of steam treatment on bacteria, fungi, and mold concentrations, respirable particle type, and content, airway response of recurrent airway obstruction in horses, nutrient content, and length of the steam protocol.

Among the findings, steaming hay decimated the bacterial load in tested forage by nine-nine percent.  Forage steamed for fifty minutes retained all minerals. Only WSC was significantly reduced, good news for metabolically challenged diets. Horses, when offered dry, soaked, or steamed hay, preferred the forage steamed in a Haygain steamer.

The patented Haygain steamer incorporates a perforated spike system that distributes steam evenly from within a thermally insulated chest. Critical high temperature of upwards of one degrees Fahrenheit is maintained even in freezing conditions. Steamer sizes vary to accommodate one full hay bag to the largest one to hold a bale to feed four horses.

Moore-Colyer developed her interest in researching the steaming hay method early in her research career. “I have always been interested in forage quality for horses and started my research career looking at the effect of soaking and steaming on respirable particles and nutrient content.”

In 2006, Moore-Colyer accepted a part-time post at Royal Agricultural University and soon was approached by Brian Fillery and Tim Oliver, who later became directors of Haygain, to help develop a hay steamer.

While the Haygain steamer is widely recognized in Europe, traction and interest in the steaming approach soared at this year’s World Equestrian Games in Tyron, North Carolina. Twenty-two, three-hundred-pound steamers to accommodate two hundred horses were shipped to Tyron in advance of the opening ceremonies. The number of products swelled to thirty-five or more by the end of the first week of the competition. Steamer requests were met for both individual and team horses throughout the event as word spread.

Moore-Colyer and Haygain organize presentations all over Europe to discuss the benefits of steaming. “The steamers are easy to use, and it is just a matter of incorporating them into a daily stable management routine.”