What are the advantages of steaming or soaking hay before you feed it to your horse? There are pros and cons for each method of preparing hay.

Both steaming and soaking are beneficial for reducing dust in hay. This can have benefits for horses with respiratory conditions, such as heaves or inflammatory airway disease.

Soaking hay is superior for reducing sugar content and is better for horses with metabolic concerns or horses prone to laminitis. However, prolonged soaking can reduce the mineral content of hay and increases the risk of mould and bacterial growth.

Steaming is more effective for eliminating a wide range of contaminants and airborne particles while preserving nutrients. Steaming requires specialized equipment and is therefore more expensive than soaking.

In this article, we will compare steaming and soaking hay and discuss some of the reasons to consider We will also describe the best way to steam or soak your horse’s hay.

Why Steam or Soak your Horse’s Hay

Steaming and soaking hay are management practices that can support equine health. While not necessary for all horses, these methods can benefit horses with:

  • Poor dental condition
  • Digestive issues such as diarrhea
  • Poor respiratory health
  • Metabolic concerns such as obesity or equine metabolic syndrome

Fresh grass typically contains 80% water compared to hay which contains only 10 – 20% water. Steaming and soaking add moisture to hay which makes it easier to chew and supports hydration.

Hay that is higher in water content is also easier to digest and is less likely to cause choke or intestinal impaction.

But is it better to steam your horse’s hay or to soak it? These feeding practices affect forage in different ways and the right strategy will depend on the specific health needs of your horse.

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Soaking Hay

Soaking involves submerging forage in water for between 30 minutes to several hours. The most common reason to soak hay is to reduce the amount of sugar (ESC) present in the forage.

This method is superior to steaming when it comes to decreasing sugar content. If your horse needs to lose weight or is insulin resistant, soaking can significantly decrease the energy density of your forage to make it more suitable for your horse.

When soaking hay, it is common to fill a hay net and submerge it in a garbage bin or plastic tote containing clean water.

Nutritionists typically recommend soaking for 30 minutes in warm/hot water or 60 minutes in cold water.

After submerging the hay, hang the hay net for at least 30 minutes to allow the water to drain before offering it to your horse.

Soaking for longer can further reduce the sugar content of the hay, but also increases the risk of mould and bacterial growth and can affect palatability.

Reducing NSC / HC Content

NSC in hay refers to the carbohydrates that are found within the plant cell and not part of the cell wall. A hay analysis can tell you the NSC value of your horse’s hay.

Non-structural carbohydrates in forage consist of:

  • Starch: polysaccharides or long-chain polymers of glucose molecules
  • Ethanol-soluble carbohydrates (ESC): simple sugars such as fructose and glucose
  • Water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC): ESC plus short-chain fructans, pectins and complex plant sugars

The names “water-soluble” and “ethanol-soluble” refer to how the components of the hay are extracted and isolated in the lab to measure these fractions. Soaking hay with water does not only reduce the WSC; it also reduces ESC. [1][2][3]

Hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HC) include the starch and ESC fractions, which are broken down by enzymes in the digestive tract and absorbed in the horse’s foregut. They can quickly increase blood sugar levels and raise insulin levels.

In contrast, fibre is a structural carbohydrate found in the cell wall. It cannot be broken down by the horse’s enzymes.

Fibre, as well as fructan, pectin, beta-glucan and complex plants sugar are instead fermented by microbes in the horse’s hindgut and are converted into volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which the horse can use for energy.

Metabolic and Myopathic Horses

Horses with metabolic and some myopathic (muscle) conditions typically benefit from restricted carbohydrate consumption and soaked hay. [3]