Hay, soaked hay, steamed hay or haylage… what is best for your horse?


We are advised that feeding a high forage diet is the way forward, but with so many options available to us how do we know what is right for our horses?

What is the difference?!

Hay and haylage are both made from grass, but the processing method of each is different.

Hay is cut and then turned until it is dry, to give a finished product with a dry matter of 85-90%. This means there is a low risk of it becoming mouldy during storage, but increases levels of dust and some nutrients are lost.

Haylage is cut but then baled and wrapped in layers of polythene within 24 hours. This gives a product with much higher moisture content, and a dry matter of 55-65%.  Due to this higher water content, more haylage (kg) than hay should be fed to ensure that the horse is receiving enough dry matter (fibre). However, if the haylage is fed to to meet the fibre requirement, it does mean that more energy and protein are also being given to the horse.

When to feed haylage:

Haylage is a very good forage to feed horses requiring a dust controlled environment,  those that are poor doers and horses with high energy requirements, such as endurance horses, hunters, eventers and those in intense work. However, it is generally not advisable to feed to horses who require a calorie controlled or low protein diet. It can be very useful as it can be stored outside, but it does need to be used quickly once opened, so is not always practical for single horse owners.

When to feeding dry hay:

In an ideal world if your horse has no existing health problems, is at their correct body weight and the hay is good quality, feeding dry hay is the easiest (and often cheapest) option. However, hay is often not ‘clean’ enough to advocate this- it is thought that most hay in the UK does need to be soaked to be fed to horses.

If you are lucky and your hay is of good enough quality that you can feed it dry, you have the benefit of it being more palatable than soaked hay. It is also easier for the owner to deal with, there is less waste, and the hay retains the nutrients and calories that can be lost through soaking, such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium.

For certain horses with specific dietary needs this reduction of nutrients may be beneficial, however, for lots of horses this is not desired.

When to feed soaked or steamed hay:

If your horse has respiratory issues

Poor growing conditions, adverse harvest weather, and older equipment can lead to hay containing excessive levels of dust and mould spores that can be damaging to the respiratory system, and will make any existing problems worse. Steaming or soaking hay can reduce the levels of these particles by 88%.  As any steamed or soaked hay that is not eaten must be thrown away, waste can be high if your horse is a fussy eater, therefore if they are not overweight, and feeding haylage is suitable it is often a great option.

If your horse is overweight, or needing a low sugar diet

Horses and ponies suffering from Laminitis, Cushing’s disease, EMS and those that are overweight all require a low sugar diet. While hay is not always thought of as a high sugar feed, many types, especially early cuts, can have sugar levels above the maximum 12% sugar level recommended for ponies and horses that need a diet low in sugar.

By soaking hay for an hour sugar levels (technically known as non-structural carbohydrates, or NSCs) can be reduced by 40%, and soaking for 12 hours has been shown to half the sugar levels again. Steaming hay will also reduce the levels of NSCs in the hay, but not as much as soaking does. It can also make hay more palatable, so while it is useful for horses needing to eat more, steaming hay may not be so ideal for overweight horses.

Olivia Colton MSc,  Nutritional and Technical Coordinator

For more advice on what you should be feeding your horse, please contact our Nutritional advisors on : 0800 585525