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Feeding Hay to Horses: Dry, Dampened, Soaked, or Steamed?By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · July 16, 2014

Are you confused about how to feed hay to your horses? If so, you’re not alone. Feeding hay used to be as simple as opening the stall door and tossing in a couple of flakes, but now there are other ways to provide this dietary staple.

Feeding dry hay. This choice is fine for most horses. Feeding hay from the ground, whether in a stall or in the pasture, allows the horse to carry its head and neck in the most natural way while feeding. Owners can also use a haynet to keep hay off the floor, or a slow-feed web or bin to stretch out the time hay is available. These options are all useful when feeding dry hay.

Feeding dampened hay. Dipping the flakes or full haynet into a large container of water and pulling it right out will dampen the hay enough to get rid of some dust and fine particles. This could be done for any horse, but is most helpful for hay that will be fed to horses riding in a trailer or for horses with mild heaves or airway irritation. Quickly dipping the hay won’t remove carbohydrates or minerals, so the nutrient profile will not change. The only change is that there won’t be as much dust floating around to irritate eyes and respiratory passages as the horse eats. On a warm day, dampened hay that is not eaten within a few hours may begin to mold. Feed small amounts at a time and remove damp hay that has not been consumed to avoid this problem.

Feeding soaked hay. Soaking hay in cold water for about 60 minutes or hot water for about 30 minutes will remove a considerable percentage of the water-soluble carbohydrates, making the hay more suitable for horses that should consume low-starch diets. This step might be helpful for obese horses and those with equine metabolic syndrome, polysaccharide storage myopathy, or laminitis. Horses with hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) can also benefit from eating soaked hay, as soaking removes some of the potassium from the hay. For horses on normal diets, soaking hay is not indicated because carbohydrates and potassium do not need to be restricted. Before soaking hay, owners should find out whether their horses need to be on special low-carb or low-potassium diets. They should have each batch of hay analyzed before and after soaking to get an accurate idea of how much these levels have been reduced, as the numbers may be different for various types and stages of maturity of hay. Also, there’s no guarantee that soaking will change the nutrient profile enough to make the hay completely safe for horses with specific conditions.

Feeding steamed hay. Hay can be placed in an apparatus that forces steam through the bale, killing microorganisms and mold spores and removing some of the carbohydrates, though not as many as are removed by soaking. Steamed hay is appealing to horses, increasing free-choice intake over soaked hay but not affecting the digestibility of protein or fiber. Steamed hay is suitable for feeding to any horse, though the carbohydrate level is slightly reduced with this method. Steaming is time-consuming, and there is some expense involved in purchasing the steamer. As with soaking, this is not a necessary management step unless it is used for horses that are sensitive to mold spores and bacteria in hay.