Alternatives to Soaking Hay for Horses With Metabolic Problems

An equine nutritionist offers alternatives to soaking hay for horses that live in subfreezing climates during winter.
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Hay Soaking
Soaking hay might not be an option in colder climates during the winter. | Michelle N. Anderson/The Horse

Q. I have a herd of five horses, all of which have histories of some kind of metabolic problem or laminitis. They are at healthy weights, but I do currently soak their hay. During the winter months (which are well below freezing where I live), what are some alternatives to soaking their hay?

A. This is a great question, and you are right to want to reduce sugar as much as possible in your herd’s diet. I’m based in Ontario, Canada, so below-freezing temperatures are a hurdle to soaking hay that I know well.

When discussing the nutritional management of horses with insulin dysregulation, my first recommendation is testing their forage. If you are nearing winter and continually soaking hay, I strongly encourage you to test your hay to determine its exact sugar content.

Soaking hay for 30-60 minutes before feeding is often a recommended practice for horses presenting with metabolic challenges when the nutritional content of the forage is unknown. It is also a popular management practice for reducing the sugar content of high-sugar forage. Therefore, when managing these cases, it is crucial to have the forage analyzed so you are equipped with all the nutritional information. Additionally, I would encourage consulting a nutritionist to ensure your horses’ nutrient requirements are still being met while maintaining a low sugar ration. The idea of reducing sugar in the diet is to avoid elevated insulin levels, so reducing any source of sugar is optimal.

If you are soaking your hay because the analysis results indicated high non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content, I have a few recommendations to consider as we quickly approach the colder months. Make it a priority to talk to your veterinarian and discuss the safety of discontinuing soaking the hay. If your horses were quite overweight when they experienced laminitis issues, their risk level might be lower now. Insulin testing is also an important topic to discuss with your veterinarian, because the results will help guide your decisions regarding your horses’ forage intake.

Another option could be to purchase lower-sugar hay to combine with your current hay and feed your herd a mixture of the two forages to reduce the overall sugar content in their daily ration.

If your hay has tested high in sugar and purchasing more is not feasible, soaking hay in below-freezing temperatures isn’t realistic, so we need to find other ways to reduce the overall sugar content of their daily ration. Steaming can be a popular method; however, it is not as effective at reducing sugar content, and the equipment can be a significant investment. If you would like to investigate steaming, I encourage you to also test the steamed forage to ensure it will be safe.

A temporary solution to get you through the colder months would be to replace a portion of your horses’ hay with a preserved forage such as timothy hay cubes that have an NSC content less than 10%. This will decrease the overall sugar content of their ration to reduce the risk of metabolic complications.

Soaking hay as a long-term solution can be challenging, especially in colder climates, so I strongly encourage investing in additional hay testing. If you’ve explored all routes of altering hay and they’re unattainable, then I would suggest consulting a nutritionist for help reducing sugars in the ration, exploring steaming, or replacing a portion of the forage with a low-sugar option such as timothy hay cubes.

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Madeline Boast completed her master’s in Equine Nutrition at the University of Guelph and started an independent nutrition company known as Balanced Bay. She has worked with a variety of equids—from Miniature Ponies to competing Thoroughbreds. Boast designs customized balanced nutrition plans that prioritize equine well-being, both for optimal performance and solving complex nutritional issues and everything between. 

2 Responses

  1. You can steam hay to reduce the sugars as well. I made one with a trash bin and a commercial clothing steamer. I have an auto timer set up to run for 60 min so breakfast is cooked when I feed. My Jiffy steamer is the exact same steamer used in a very popular Horse Hay, steamer. Be sure to put a drain hole in the bottom to let the excess water drain out

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