Hay Soaking: All Washed Up or Good Management?

This article is courtesy of Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota.

Soaking hay in water is a common strategy used to manage the nutrition of some diseased horses.  Current hay soaking recommendations include soaking hay for 30 minutes in warm or 60 minutes in cold water for removal of carbohydrates (Watts, 2003).  Soaking hay is commonly done to manage horse diagnosed with laminitis, Polysaccaride Storage Myopathy (PSSM), hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

  • Researchers have suggested that diets contain less than 12 and 10% nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) for horses affected with laminitis (Frank, 2009) and PSSM (Borgia et al., 2009), respectively. 
  • Reynolds et al. (1997) determined that a diet less than 1% K is necessary for horses diagnosed with HYPP.
  • Moore-Colyer (1996) determined that soaking hay for 30 minutes reduced respiratory problems for horses diagnosed with COPD or heaves. 

However, how efficient is hay soaking, and are additional essential nutrients lost during the soaking process?  Researchers at the University of Minnesota set out to determine the impact of water temperature and soaking duration on removal of NSC, crude protein (CP), minerals, and dry matter (DM) from alfalfa and orchardgrass hays. 

Four hay types were soaked, including bud and flowering alfalfa, and vegetative and flowering orchardgrass.  Individual flakes were submerged for 15, 30 and 60 minutes in 25 liters of cold (72°F) and warm (102°F) water, and for 12 hours in cold water.  A control (non-soaked) sample was also evaluated.  Water temperatures were determined by using the cold or warm only faucets, similar to practices implemented by horse owners and managers.  Subsamples of entire flakes were submitted for nutrient analysis at a commercial laboratory.

  • Prior to soaking, both alfalfa hays were below the 10 and 12% NSC threshold for horses diagnosed with PSSM and laminitis, respectively, and would not have required soaking. The orchardgrass hays were above these thresholds, however, after soaking for 15 to 30 minutes were at or below 10 to 12% NSC. 
    • Although soaking hay for longer durations did further reduce NSC content, it is not recommended.  All horses, even diseased ones, require carbohydrates in their diet. 
    • The severely limited NSC content in hay soaked for greater than 1 hour, combined with increased fiber amounts (fiber components are not water soluble, thus they are concentrated in soaked hay), brings into question the palatability and availability of nutrients in hay soaked for longer periods of time.
  • Crude protein leaching was variable in soaked hays, something other researchers have also observed (Moore-Colyer, 1996).  More importantly, previous research looked at the nutrient availability and quality of rained-on hay fed to steers and suggested the nitrogen remaining in rained-on hay is more stable, water-insoluble (Rotz and Muck, 1994), and possibly less digestible by ruminants (Licitra et al, 1996).  Additional research is needed to evaluate this concept when feeding soaked hay to horses.        
  • Calcium (Ca) is not as prone to leaching during soaking compared to other minerals, and appears to be dependent on hay maturity.  As soaking duration increased, leaching of Ca increased in alfalfa bud and vegetative orchardgrass hays (immature hays).  However, soaking had no effect on Ca leaching in the more mature hays. 
    • Conversely, magnesium (Mg) Mg and phosphorus (P) levels were reduced in all hay types as a result of soaking, with longer soaking durations leading to greater reductions.  Because Ca is not as water soluble as P, high Ca:P ratios were observed in hays soaked for  longer durations, specifically after 12 hours. 
    • Ideally, Ca:P ratios should range from 1:1 to 3:1 (up to 6:1) in horse diets (NRC, 2007).  The high Ca:P ratios observed after longer soaking durations were exaggerated in alfalfa hays which had higher Ca:P ratios prior to soaking. 
    • After 12 hours of soaking, a deficiency in P was observed and ranged from a shortage of 1 to 8 grams for a 500 kg horse in light work (NRC, 2007), and Krook and Maylin [32] suggested that osteochondrosis may be associated with excess dietary Ca. 
  • Soaking both alfalfa and orchardgrass hay for 12 hours was necessary to sufficiently reduce K concentration to recommend levels prior to feeding horses diagnosed with HYPP (Reynolds et al, 1997).  Although K levels can be reduced by soaking, neither alfalfa nor orchardgrass hay is an appropriate option for horses diagnosed with HYPP due to the naturally high levels of K. 

Owners should rely on forage analysis as the primary method of determining the appropriate hay for horses, especially when feeding horses diagnosed with laminitis, PSSM, HYPP or COPD.   Hay soaking for short durations (15 to 30 minutes in duration) is an acceptable management method, but should only be used if ideal hay is not available.  Hay should not soak hay for greater than 1 hour.  Soaking hay for long durations resulted in severely reduced NSC content, high Ca:P ratios, shortage of P in the diet and significant losses in DM.

Forages for Horses

This blog post is courtesy of Jennifer Earing, PhD, University of Minnesota.

Forage selection should be based on horse needs, as there is no one forage best suited for all classes of horses.  For example, providing a nutrient-dense forage like vegetative alfalfa hay to ‘easy keepers’ can create obesity issues; however, that same hay would be good option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements.  With so many forages available, how does one choose the best option??  Differences in the nutritive quality of forages (hay or pasture) are largely based on two factors: plant maturity and species.


Regardless of plant species, stage of maturity significantly affects forage quality. 

  • Young, vegetative forages are very nutrient dense and contain fewer fibrous carbohydrates (hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin). 
  • As the plant matures (flowers and seed heads are indicators of maturity), the proportion of fiber in the plant increases, to provide structural support as the plant gets larger.  The increased level of lignin associated with maturation interferes with the digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose by hindgut microorganisms, thereby reducing the digestibility of the forage.  
  • More mature forages also have lower energy and protein levels than their immature counterparts. 

Most horses do well on mid-maturity forages; horses with elevated nutrient requirements benefit from receiving young, less mature forages, while more mature forages are be best suited for ‘easy keepers’.

Plant species

Legumes vs. Grasses
Legumes (i.e. alfalfa and clovers) generally produce higher quality forage than grasses.  Often, legumes have higher energy, protein, and mineral (specifically calcium) content when compared to grasses at a similar stage of maturity, and are typically more digestible and more palatable. Legumes are an excellent source of nutrients for horses; however, a horse’s nutrient requirements can easily be exceeded when fed immature legumes.  Consumption of excess nutrients, particularly energy, may result in obesity or other digestive issues.  Legume-grass mixes or mid- to late-maturity legumes (which are less nutrient-dense) often provide adequate nutrients, without exceeding the horse’s requirements.    

Cool Season Grasses vs. Warm Season Grasses

Cool-season grasses (CSG; i.e. timothy, bromegrass, bluegrass, and orchardgrass) typically have a higher nutritive value compared to warm season grasses (WSG; i.e. bahiagrass, bermudagrass and bluestems).  At a similar stage of maturity, CSG have a higher protein content and lower fiber content.  The higher fiber content in WSGs is due to the fact that they mature and become lignified more rapidly than CSGs.  WSGs in late stages of maturity are typically less digestible and may be less palatable than CSGs.  Consequently, if feeding WSGs it may be advantageous to harvest the forage at an earlier stage of maturity, compared to CSGs.

CSGs store the majority of their carbohydrates as fructans, while WSGs and legumes store their carbohydrates as starch.  Rapid consumption of forages containing high levels of fructans, as with other water-soluble carbohydrates, may trigger laminitis in susceptible horses.  Fructan levels are highest in lush spring pastures and often increase during drought conditions.  Carbohydrate content of forage is an important consideration for owners of horses struggling with chronic laminitis issues, equine metabolic syndrome, and PSSM

Differences in average nutritive values of forages commonly fed to horses are shown in Table 1.


The digestive system of the horse has been designed to efficiently utilize forages, and most horses can fulfill their nutrient requirements on these types of diets.  Matching the nutrient levels in the forage to the nutrient requirements of the horse is one of the primary goals in forage selection.  A variety of factors, including plant species and maturity, should be considered when making this decision.

Weaning Options for Foals

Weaning time can be stressful, but proper preparation of the foals and the mares for weaning can make the process much easier for everyone!  Most foals are weaned at about 4-6 months of age, depending on the condition of the broodmares and the management plan of the owner.

There are a number of different ways to actually handle weaning, depending on how many foals you have and the physical layout of your facility.  Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • There is probably less stress on the foal if it remains in the pen or paddock where it is accustomed to being instead of being moved to a new location.  Move the mare, not the foal if possible. 
  • Misery loves company.  If you have more than one foal, wean at least 2 at a time and keep them together.  If you have only one foal, perhaps you have a nice old tolerant gelding who can be a babysitter?  Mares also do better with company.
  • Make certain the pen and paddock are safe with good fencing and no hazards.
  • Out of sight (and hearing), out of mind.  Mares and foals tend to quiet down faster if they cannot see and hear each other after weaning.  There are some differences of opinion on this element of weaning management.
  • A few days prior to weaning, reduce the grain intake on the mare to prepare her to dry up from milk production. 
    • Her udder is going to be somewhat swollen, so don’t plan on cinching her up right away for a trail ride. 
    • Her milk production started decreasing significantly at 2-3 months of lactation
    • Make certain that she can continue to get exercise to minimize swelling and discomfort post weaning.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and adjust feed intake to maintain growth and body condition.  Foals should be consuming about 1 pound of a suitable foal feed per month of age at the time they are weaned.  (Ex: a 4 month old foal should be consuming 4 lbs of feed per day.)  Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and broodmares and make for a more pleasant experience for all!