Soaking It Up!

In the past, soaking forage was a popular method to both decrease dust, allergens, mites, spores, and other respiratory irritants as well as reduce carbohydrate and sugar content. Horses with low-starch or low-sugar diets benefit from soaking hay. Removal of water decreases the number of calories per flake, a positive result for obese horses, or those with EMS or laminitis. Indeed, soaking hay can reduce the sugars by as much as fifteen to twenty percent.

Dr. Krishona Martinson, Professor and Equine Extension Specialist with the University of Minnesota Department of Animal Science, confirms the effectiveness of hay soaking for horses with diet challenges.

“Based on research conducted by the University of Minnesota, soaking most grass hays for 15 to 30 minutes removed enough NSC (non-structural carbohydrates) for most horses diagnosed with PSSM, EMS, PPID, and laminitis. Legumes (i.e., alfalfa) tend to be lower in NSC compared to cool-season grasses (i.e., Timothy), and hay containing legumes may not need to be soaked. Testing forage both before and after soaking is necessary to ensure the recommended levels of NSC are being met. Soaking forage for greater than sixty minutes is rarely necessary and may be detrimental due to excessive leaching of essential nutrients and loss of dry matter,” reasoned Martinson.

A caution to horse owners, though. A horse’s diet requiring a reduction in carbohydrates loses more than the carbs in the soaked hay. Necessary nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium wash away, as well. Too much elimination of carbohydrates and sugars taps a horse’s energy source needed for exercise and body condition. Monitoring weight and body condition scores go hand in hand with diet modifications.

Horses diagnosed with HYPP (hyperkalemic periodic paralysis) needless potassium in their diets. Thoroughly soaked hay depletes the mineral content during the immersion, a mineral found elevated in the most types of forage.

Weight loss and diet restrictions are not the only reasons to submerge a horse’s hay in water.

Veterinarians often recommend a hay soaking protocol following a colic episode to combat dehydration. Soaking hay during a recovery period helps stabilize a horse’s system by adding moisture to the forage.

The soaking protocol is labor-intensive and messy. Soaking hay is a daily commitment for an already over-scheduled horse owner. Planning is vital, and preparation for morning and evening feeds differ.

Flakes or a filled hay net should be thoroughly submerged in cold water for sixty minutes, an option that best serves hay prepped for the morning feed, to be fruitful. Hot water soaking to cook out the sugars should last thirty minutes, a more convenient option for evening meals. Like horses, we enjoy our dinners hot but not scalding. Be sure to rinse the hay in cold water before serving!

The longer they soak, the more harmful particles inflaming a horse’s respiratory airways disappear. If dust is your primary culprit, a ten-minute soak will do the job. Soaking hay is also the most effective way to reduce water-soluble carbohydrates for horses with metabolic issues, insulin resistance, laminitis, and Cushing’s Disease, as Martinson concluded.

While the length of the soak is manageable, hay soaking itself introduces a host of other problems. Some horses refuse wet hay requiring time to dry before feeding. The drier the feed becomes, the more likely dust and allergen particles return.

Soaking hay also incurs financial and environmental challenges over the long-term. Nearly fifteen to twenty-five gallons of water can be necessary for one soak. Two feeds a day can drive anyone’s water bill through the roof.

The liquid that results from the soak maybe nine times more toxic than raw sewage, not often palatable for the horse or the owner.

Weather is a discouraging factor, too. Hot days risk bacterial levels to spike as much as 150 percent compromising hygienic quality. On days when the temperature hovers below 0˚ at best, dealing with buckets of wet hay and racing to prevent ice crystals from forming can be discouraging for anyone!

Martinson acknowledges that soaking or steaming hay pose difficulties during the winter months. “Hay soaking is less costly compared to purchasing a hay steamer; however, both are challenging during the winter months and must be fed quickly post soaking and steaming to avoid mold formation.”

Both sprinkling a flake of hay or soaking it can be time-intensive for busy horse owners, so what’s the solution? Stay tuned for this week’s final post examining the popularity of hay steaming!