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Soak Hay - Save A Life

Is your horse this fat??  If so, he might FOUNDER!
A Rubbermaid bin for soaking hay

Studies have proven that soaking hay in water can significantly reduce the carbohydrate load(1). This is extremely important for Insulin Resistant (IR) horses, PPID (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, a.k.a Cushings Disease), horses that have metabolically foundered, and those with chronic or acute laminitis. The needs and management of these horses are similar to humans with Type II Diabetes. When an equine is diagnosed as IR, it means their body is not as responsive to insulin as it should be. The body has to elevate the level of insulin to manage blood glucose. Insulin in itself is a known inflammatory and injections of insulin was shown to induce acute laminitis in a clinical study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Queensland(2). The management protocol is to tightly manage the level of glucose in the horse's blood by feeding a diet low in simple sugar. When the glucose level is low, the amount of insulin required is also lower. PPID is an endocrine system malfunction in which there is an abnormal growth of cells within the pituitary gland. This causes abnormal hormone levels in the blood, such as ACTH and Cortisol. PPID horses often suffer recurring bouts of acute laminitis, and founder. A tightly managed diet is critical for the treatment of ANY equine metabolic disorder.

Maintaining a diet low in sugars is very important for health and healing, not to mention soundness. Unfortunately this crucial little piece of information is sometimes neglected by the owners of metabolic horses because they either donít know about it, or it is too much work. I recall a horse I looked at that had deep purple bruises on all 4 of his white hooves. Growth rings, and lameness were also present. The horse was buried chest deep in a round bale, and when I questioned his owner, she told me that she doesn't limit his grass or hay because the vet said laminitis is not curable, so what's the point? That horse was heading for metabolic crisis far worse than what he was already in, but the owner was given faulty information from a veterinary professional. This is so unfortunate it's heartbreaking. This article will hopefully serve to inform you of the danger of non-regulated simple sugar intake and what you can do to make hay safer for your horse. Soaking hay is a bit of a chore, but with practice it becomes second nature.
I will describe to you the method that I use most for soaking hay. Iíve tried a lot of different things, and by far, this works the best, and strains your back the least.

  • Buy at least two medium sized storage bins like the ones shown here. They cost around $8 each.
  • Buy a small to medium sized concrete block or paver stone to use as a weight the hay as it floats to the top of the water. Or you can use an ice cream pale filled with sand, which works great also.

The toughest part about hay soaking is the water source and drainage. Once you have 20 gallons of water in the tub, it will be very difficult to move it to a place where you can drain it, unless you put it on a cart with wheels, which is another possibility that works well! Itís important to fill it in the same location where you will be able to drain it. This may mean running a hose from the water source to the drainage location. For those of us who live in the frozen tundra, the thought of all that water in January is dreadful. But, there ARE ways to make it easier.

Set the hay on end inside the tub. Laying it flat can leave dry spots inside the hay, and I've found it works better to set the flakes on end. Lay the block on top of the hay to weight it down. Fill the tub with just enough water to cover the hay. No need to run excess water.

Leave the hay to soak for a MINIMUM of 30 to 60 minutes for hot water and 2 hours for cold. Or you can leave the hay overnight, or all day to soak. Donít leave it longer than this in hot weather, as it can spoil.

When youíre ready to drain it, remove the weight, then grab the tub by one handle and tip it up on end slowly to pour off the water. If you do this right, youíre using leverage to lift up the end of the tub, and not brute force. Do NOT strain your back! You are no good to your horse when you're laying crippled in the feed room floor with a seized up muscle. Keep your back flat and straight and squat down to grab the handle, donít bend over.

Once youíve drained off all the water, you can drag the tub to the horse. This is easily accomplished by afixing a grass hay string to the handle on one end. Take 3 hay strings and braid them together so you have a nice thick handle that won't cut your hand in two. Leave the wet hay inside the tub to keep it clean. Shavings and dirt will stick to the wet hay and it becomes unappetizing to your horse. Another hay transporting option is to set the tub onto a little cart and wheel it to the horse, if it is too heavy for you to drag, or if you have to drag it halfway across the farm.

While your horse is eating hay from this tub, set up the other tub with hay to be soaking for the next feeding.

If by chance your horse just flat refuses to get used to eating wet hay, you can lay it out flat on a tarp or drying rack for a few hours before feeding, but this is much more work. Itís best if you can slowly accustom the horse to eating wet hay. People have had success sprinkling white table salt throughout the hay (no more than 1 ounce {1 tablespoon} per feeding). Still others sprinkle cinnamon, or ground flax seed on the wet hay. You can also used non-molasses soaked beet pulp, which is very safe for metabolic horses. Soak it thoroughly, then dump it on the hay and mix it throughout. Of course this only works if your horse already eats beet pulp and he likes it. You don't want to wate a tub full of hay and a pound of beet pulp on your experiment, so test it in small quantities first!

Still another experiment to try if the horse refuses to eat the soaked hay - mix in some alfalfa leaves, or soaked alfalfa pellets. Alfalfa is actually lower in total sugar content than most grass hays, though the sugar in alfalfa is primarily glucose rather than fructan. Fructan is a safe sugar, glucose obviously is not. Some metabolic horses can eat a portion of their meals in alfalfa without any problems, others cannot tolerate it. So the decision to use alfalfa should be made with your veterinarian, and your horse's past history of tolerance to it. One of my metabolic horses tolerates alfalfa extremely well, but one does not. Each horse is different and it takes some experimenting. But if you're trying to wean your horse over to eating soaked hay, shaking out some alfalfa leaves into the wet hay can be a good way to convince your horse to eat it. Remember - everything in moderation. Don't dose your horse with large quantities of anything that might be unsafe for him. Try it in small amounts first.

Other more technical and complicated methods involve using a large Rubbermaid bin on wheels and drilling a hole in the bottom and installing a plug to drain water. Or placing the hay inside a hay bag and setting the hay bag in the tub full of water, then pulling it out with a pulley system. The problem with this method is that your clothes get soaked while youíre trying to hang the bag, and also the bag weighs about 60 pounds when youíre trying to lift it out of the water. Another method is to place a laundry basket inside the bin full of water then pull out the laundry basket with the hay. Again, this is heavier than just tipping the tub on itís end to drain, but itís not as heavy as lifting the bag.


In the winter, it is ok to let the hay freeze inside the tub, as long as it is not freezing into a solid block. Horses seem to like the "haysicles" and as long as they have no tooth problems, or ulcers, the frozen hay should not cause them a problem. Place the tub inside a feed room or wash stall if any way possible to protect it from the elements. It will take much longer to freeze this way. But again, make sure it is close to a drain, or close to a place it can be drug and emptied. I soak hay all the way down to -15 below zero with -40 windchills and I have no problem. My feed room drain freezes up in the winter so I must drag the tub outside to drain it. This is best accomplished with the smallest tub possible, or two small tubs with only 2 flakes of hay in each, versus one big tub with all 4 flakes. If you can get the tub on the snow, it drags VERY easily. I've never had a problem with creating an ice slick, as I slightly vary the dumping location every week or so. Some people have actually dug a 12 foot square gravel pit where they dump the water. This lets it drain down and away.

If you have absolutely NO place to safely drain the water during the winter, the best option for you is to find a hay source that sells low NSC (Non Structural Carbohydrate) Hay.

1. http://www.safergrass.org/pdf/SoakReport.pdf --- Kathryn Watts, Research Director, Rocky Mountain Research and Consulting, Inc.

2. The Role of Insulin in Endocrinopathic Laminitis --- University of Queensland, The Veterinary Journal August 2007