Written by: Nicole Kitchener
Find the best bedding for your horse with our comprehensive guide.
By putting horses in stalls we create a situation that’s inherently unnatural for them, so their comfort, health and safety should be paramount when choosing the bedding. But there are a number of other factors that need to be considered too, including:
• Ease of Use
• Environmental Considerations
• Health Factors
While some bedding materials are traditional stable mainstays, newer products are also gaining a foothold in stalls across the country.
Straw is by-product of cereal plants such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, after the grain and chaff have been removed. Used for centuries, even today it’s preferred by many horse owners, as it creates a comfortable, warm stall.
Availability and Affordability: Straw is usually fairly easy to source in Canada. It’s sold in bales – either round or large – or small rectangles, although the latter are becoming harder to find as farmers move away from the labour-intensive practice of producing smaller bales. It’s also not as inexpensive as it used to be, in part because supplies are being diverted to the bio-fuel market. The price of straw varies depending on the province and region, but on average, you can purchase small square bales for $2.50 to $9 and round bales for $10 to $50.
Absorbency and Ease of Use: Straw is not particularly absorbent. But it is actually considered a drainage-type bedding – urine is supposed to seep through to the floor below. While that’s nice for the horse because he doesn’t have to stand or lay down in wet spots, it necessitates having some form of drainage through a porous floor base such as dirt or gravel.
Straw also has a tendency to slip around when the horse moves, exposing the floor below. If materials such as wood, concrete and rubber mats are wet from urine, a horse can slip and/or fall. It’s advised that stalls on such surfaces be bedded deeply.
As for mucking, straw can be cumbersome and it’s often difficult to sort clean bedding from soiled.
Storage: Large bales can be difficult to manoeuvre and store. It’s important to store straw out of the elements and with plenty of air flow around the bales (i.e. stacked on pallets) to prevent spoilage.
Straw should be stored in a building separate from where horses live for both fire safety and ventilation. Although stacked straw can spontaneously combust, incidents aren’t as common as they are with hay because straw tends to hold less moisture – a key ingredient in creating heat inside of bales. According to Pennsylvania State Extension document Fire Safety – 30 Seconds is All Your Horse Has, “A horse standing in a bed of straw might just as well be standing in a pool of gasoline should a fire occur. The burning rate of loose straw is approximately three times that of the burning rate of gasoline.”
Environmental Considerations: Straw stall waste accumulates quickly on a manure pile and can take a while to compost. However, once it’s ready, it is a beneficial addition to fields. Some horse owners like Wendy Inch, owner of Sunny Acres Morgan Horse Farm in St. Thomas, Ontario, can take advantage of another industry’s need for poopy straw. “I have a good thing going with a mushroom farm in our area, so there was an easy way to get rid of it,” said Inch, who also uses wood pellets. Every two weeks, 13 horses worth of stall waste is removed from Inch’s property and the mushroom farmer gets a nutrient-rich base in which to grow the edible fungus.
Health Factors: Straw is prone to mould and dust and, due to its low absorbency, ammonia fumes from the urine are likely to build up, making it a poor choice for horses with respiratory issues. Some horses will eat straw (oat and barley straw are particularly palatable, wheat less so), which can result in colic if they over-indulge.
Straw is still often used for foaling stalls because it’s more difficult for foals to inhale or ingest and it doesn’t stick as easily to mama and baby as other beddings do.
Shavings are either produced purposely for animal bedding or are sold as a by-product of the lumber industry. They are probably the most common bedding found in horse stalls across the country.
Availability and Affordability: Depending on where you live, how you choose to buy them and the quality you desire, shavings can be reasonably priced or fall on the expensive side. Availability can depend on the wood supply situation.
Higher-quality softwood shavings (usually pine) that are dust-extracted, screened and kiln-dried can be purchased at feed and equine supply stores in vacuum-packed plastic or paper bags, generally ranging in price from $5 to $8. Some sawmills and bedding-specific companies deliver or blow-in bulk shavings at a lower price.
Sarah King buys loose shavings from a local sawmill for her Picket Hill Equestrian Centre, just outside Fredericton, New Brunswick. She figures she spends about $80 to $100 week, not including a $70 delivery fee, to bed 17 stalled horses at her facility. “It’s relatively cheap,” she said. “We use a lot of shavings because we’re not skimpy. People could do it cheaper than we do it.”
In some cases, horse owners can bag their own at lumber mills and carpentry shops for free or a nominal fee, although this can be risky because the shavings could contain chemicals, hardwoods such as black walnut that are toxic to horses, nails and dangerous materials.
Absorbency and Ease of Use: Alison Brebner also beds the horses on shavings at her dressage facility, Northern Equestrian Centre, south of Ottawa, Ontario, for “the combination of the absorbency and ease of mucking.” This can, however, depend on the actual size of the shavings. Finer pieces tend to sop up urine better and make it easy to locate and sift manure from clean bedding, but they are dustier. A stall containing large, fluffy shavings is a beauty and creates a soft, airy nearly dust-free bed for horses, but most muckers will agree that more bedding is pulled out during cleaning and it can be hard to sort manure.
Storage: Bags come in a variety of sizes and are easy to store but bulk shavings need a large, dry space.
Environmental Considerations: Shavings don’t break down as quickly as other forms of bedding.
Health Factors: High-quality (read pricier) shavings contain relatively low amounts of dust and can be a good option for horses with respiratory problems.
Also a by-product of the lumber industry, sawdust is made of fine wood particles and is, as the name suggests, dusty.
Availability and Affordability: It’s most commonly obtained directly from sawmills or carpenters and is often available for free or at a lower cost than shavings, for example.
Absorbency and Ease of Use: Sawdust is extremely absorbent and urine tends to clump rather than spread. It also dries out manure, making it easy to muck.
Storage: Sawdust should be stored in the same way as shavings, preferably not near where horses live due to the dust.
Environmental Considerations: Stall waste is minimal and, according to an Alberta government fact sheet on composting horse manure, “If managed properly, sawdust will compost faster than coarser bedding materials.”
Health Factors: Sawdust isn’t suitable for horses with respiratory issues. It can also get into horses’ eyes and noses when they lay down.
Another lumber industry by-product, wood pellets consist of compressed, kiln-dried, sterilized wood fibres.
Availability and Affordability: While pellets specifically for horse bedding are available, many people use those designed for fueling wood-pellet stoves, finding them less expensive and more readily available in certain areas.
Wood-stove pellets generally come in 40-pound bags that can be found at garden, hardware and feed stores. They cost anywhere from $5 to $7. Horse bedding pellets usually will set you back a couple of dollars more. Dealers will often sell skids containing dozens of bags at a quantity discount. Sometimes they can be purchased in bulk or large tote bags.
Ease of Use and Absorbency: Pellets need to be moistened once they’re down in the stall. Extremely absorbent, they will soak up the water and immediately begin to expand and soften into smaller flakes. Those marketed specifically for pets come somewhat broken down, with a crunched up appearance, compared to wood-stove pellets.
Inch uses pellets in addition to straw at her farm and plans to switch over completely because she finds many of her Morgans like to chow down on straw. She likens using pellets to dealing with kitty litter as the urine clumps and the manure is easy to pick out.
Not everyone is a pellet proponent. King said her farm’s previous owner used wood-stove pellets, so, when she took over in June 2014, she tried them too. However, she likens pellets to “walking on marbles” and felt the horses couldn’t be totally comfortable in their stalls.
Storage: The bags are easy to move, haul and store and can be kept outside. “They don’t take very much space at all and they last a long time,” noted Inch.
Environmental Considerations: Using pellets can reduce the amount of stall waste and it composts much faster than shavings or straw. “I find very little wastage and the manure pile is not very big. It hardly grows at all,” said Inch.
Health Factors: There are concerns that wood-stove pellets may contain wood species that are harmful to horses including black walnut. Pellets manufactured specifically for horse bedding are made from softwoods such as pine and undergo extra processing to extract dust.
Compared to other beddings, pellets produce very little dust if managed properly and ammonia fumes are minimized.
Sphagnum peat moss is an organic fibrous material composed of partly decayed vegetable matter. Found in Boggy or marshy areas, it’s harvested and dried mainly for use in gardens.
Availability and Affordability: Carried at feed shops and garden stores, peat comes in compressed bale-type plastic bags. A 3.8-cubic-foot bag costs around $10.
Absorbency and Ease of Use: Peat is highly absorbent, but many people find it hard to find the urine and heavy to muck out. Its dark appearance and heavy black dust that coats horses and barn surfaces can be a turnoff.
Storage: The larger-type bags can be cumbersome to move and to stash away. They can be placed outside, but peat has a tendency to freeze in the winter.
Environmental Considerations: Having been partly composted already, peat breaks down very easily and is a valuable soil amendment.
Health Factors: Peat has long been recommended for horses suffering from respiratory issues and a recent Finnish study bears this out. The Natural Resources Institute research revealed that horses show fewer signs of respiratory problems than when wood shavings are used. Peat’s particle size is large enough that it can’t travel deep into the horse’s lungs, says the study, which also indicated ammonia content was six to eight times greater in stalls bedded with wood shavings. Peat also makes a soft, cushy bed, which could help senior horses or those with foot or leg issues.
It may take a while to find a type of bedding that really works for you and your animals, but in the end, no matter what’s on the stall floor, as Brebner said, “Nothing can replace good, thorough stall cleaning.”
BEDS OF THE FUTURE
Traditionalists at the best of times, horse owners are becoming more open to using uncommon bedding materials, especially if they think it will save money, time and could even be better for their horse’s health and the environment at the same time.
Following are some newer or rarer types of bedding that may find their way into horse stalls in the near future.
CHOPPED AND PELLETED STRAW
Although horses have been bedded on straw forever, there are newer ways to use the grain stalks. Some companies chop and process it into fine shreds that are low in dust content and more absorbent than regular straw. It can also be broken down and pelletized.
In 1998, a 60-year ban on the commercial cultivation of hemp was lifted in Canada. Since then, the wood-like inside core of the hemp plant, a renewable resource, has been processed for a number of uses including animal bedding. Hemp produces little dust, is absorbent, decomposes well and isn’t palatable to most horses. Hemp is available shredded or in pellets.
Flax bedding is derived from the chopped-up interior fibre of the plant’s stem that is cast off during the seed-production and linen-making process. Very similar to hemp, it’s also a re-harvestable resource.
A product we may hear more about in years to come is kenaf, a plant that is related to cotton and okra, is currently growing in popularity as a bedding material in the United States.
According to a 1998 University of Guelph Equine Research Centre study, shredded paper (usually newsprint) is the most absorbent type of bedding when compared to straw, shavings, peat and hemp. Combined with the fact that it’s virtually dust-free, it’s great for horses with respiratory issues. Paper also creates a soft bed and it decomposes quickly. However, it tends to blow around, ink may stain light-coloured horses, it can be heavy to muck when wet. It’s also hard to find in Canada. Shredded cardboard is also processed as horse bedding and provides a springier bed than paper.
LAY SOME RUBBER
Rubber mats and stall mattress systems are often used over stall flooring to provide extra protection and insulation.
Initially relatively expensive at $150 or more to cover a standard-sized stall, rubber mats should be considered an investment. Standard rubber mats usually measure 4’x 6’ or smaller interlocking pieces are available. Seamless, wall-to-wall mattress “skins” are custom-installed and, depending on size, can run into the thousands of dollars.
Sarah King of Fredericton, New Brunswick, said rubber mats over her stalls’ dirt floors make mucking out easier and saves on wear and tear. “We found that when there’s no rubber mat, the floor tends to get dug away at and gets very un-level and ends up getting a pit in the centre.”
While some people continue to bed stalls to the same depth they would ordinarily, others say they don’t have to use as much. “I’m not sure it reduces amount of bedding,” said Alison Brebner of Ottawa, Ontario. “We use the mats more for the horses’ comfort.”
And, according to 38 horses in a recent study, bedding does seem to equal comfort. ETH Zurich Ethology and Animal Welfare Unit master’s student Christina Rufener found that the horses were more likely to lay down and rested for longer periods in areas covered by the most bedding (in this case wood shavings). But they rarely laid down in areas covered only by rubber mats.
Manufacturers also claim that matting is warmer and may also reduce strain on joints and tendons.