Hay Dunking in Horses: Maybe More Than a Habit

Why do horses dunk their hay while eating? Our equine nutritionist offers several ideas and suggestions.
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Hay Dunking in Horses: Maybe More Than a Habit
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. | Photo: iStock

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 throat

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Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

2 Responses

  1. Where is your hay pile in regards to the buckets? My horse DROPS hay in his buckets but doesn’t eat it. When I changed the location of the hay pile it didn’t stop this behavior but it did helpl

  2. I have owned horses for 30 years. I have shown them. , raced them and ridden trail. Your horse probably needs her teeth checked and floated. They will dunk their hay and chew to one side if her teeth are sharp to keep from biting the side of the mouth. Softening the.hay helps them chew better.

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