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A deeper look into steaming hay vs soaking hay for reducing sugar content

A deeper look into steaming hay vs soaking hay for reducing sugar content

Horses with insulin resistance, such as laminitics, require huge modifications to their diet to limit the amount of sugar (carbohydrates) that they consume.

Nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC), including starch and water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC) are abundant in much of a horse's typical forage diet of grass and hay.

Generally, nutritionists and veterinarians suggest keeping the NSC content below 12% on a dry matter basis. As forage should constitute the majority of a horse's diet, it's vital to consider the NSC content in the forage.


Soaking to reduce sugar content

Soaking hay has for a long time been the ‘go-to’ practice for feeding insulin-resistant horses, this is because it has often been thought of as the most effective way of reducing the sugar content of hay.

Soaking removes fructans, also known as water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC), as well as some starch. It is known that the warmer the water temperature and the longer you soak the hay, the more WSC you remove. Seems straightforward, right? Maybe not….

There are real disadvantages to soaking hay that are not commonly discussed.
While soaking reduces the sugar content, it also causes a considerable amount of minerals to be lost. It also reduces the protein content, PLUS the amount of dry matter, leaving your horse with less digestible fibre. 

What is more, if the hay is soaked for too long or is not fed quickly after soaking, mould can develop rapidly. After just two hours of soaking, bacteria will exponentially grow on the hay.

But if only soaking hay was easy, it would be worth it, right??

The reality is…. soaking hay is hard. Wet hay is heavy, it is a nightmare in winter, and draining all that water makes a mess. And sometimes, even though you have gone through all that effort, your horse simply will not eat it anyway as it has developed a mildewy taste.


Steaming to reduce sugar content

Studies show that steaming hay for about an hour, reaching a temperature of around 80°C for at least 10 minutes, significantly reduces mould spores and dust. What is more, the studies show that using a steamer reduces the risk of horses developing inflammatory airway disease by 63%.

Regarding sugar reduction, research reveals that steaming causes a small but still significant decrease in WSC. However, if the hay's initial WSC very high, steaming might not reduce it to appropriate levels – Although, you need to bear in mind that this risk is still the same with soaking.

Steaming only removes WSC from hay, while soaking can leach other valuable nutrients like protein, minerals, and dry matter. Additionally, soaking leaves you with a substantial amount of contaminated water. Many horse owners are unaware that this requires careful disposal to avoid contaminating waterways as it can be harmful to aquatic organisms.



For those that need to slightly reduce the WSC content of their hay, steaming would be the most convenient option. However, if you need to reduce WSC significantly, soaking the hay might be what is necessary for your horse – but be aware that it needs to be done in a controlled routine to avoid excessive bacteria growth.

If possible, testing your hay by sending a sample off for a nutrition analysis is the best way to guide your course of action. This is because if your hay already has a very low WSC, neither treatment may be necessary. However, if you discover that a small reduction in WSC is required, which can be achieved through steaming, then, well…… I know which method I would use.



Check out how quick and easy it is to set up the NUVEQ Hay Steamer in the video below.


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