Hay Dunking in Horses: Maybe More Than a Habit
Q. I currently have an older mare on trial for my lesson program. Overall, her weight and health seem to be good, and she has no ribs showing. However, I noticed when she eats alfalfa she likes to dunk it in her water and also turns her head sideways while chewing. I haven’t seen her do this as much when she is eating grass hay. Do you have any idea why she might do this?
A. I run into a fair number of horses that dunk their hay in water before eating it. It is a messy habit and makes for a lot of trough cleaning, because water buckets/troughs with hay in them can turn slimy quickly, especially in warm weather. Dunking hay offers some advantages, most obviously that it helps increase a horse’s water intake. But this is unlikely the reason horses dunk their hay in water while eating it. Dunking hay is most often a benign, albeit annoying, behavior. It is important to rule out pain as a potential cause of this behavior before you assume your horse is doing it solely to make a mess.
Your horse may have a sore throat, in which case wet hay will be less irritating than dry hay. Dunking hay before eating softens it, making it less likely to cause irritation. Similarly, if your horse is suffering from dental issues, she may find that the hay is too tough to chew when dry and that it’s easier to chew when wet. Alfalfa is stemmier than grass hay, and so it’s potentially harder to chew than a softer grass hay. The stems might be more irritating if the issue is a sore
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