Cleaning stalls gives a person time to think. It’s the sort of repetitious chore that frees your mind to contemplate your training goals, prioritize your tack wish list, consider names for an expected foal and mull over other questions. It’s also a perfect time to reevaluate your bedding choices.
Chances are, you’re using whatever bedding material is readily available in your area and fits your budget. And there’s nothing wrong with that, assuming your horse doesn’t have any special health needs and the bedding you’ve chosen is safe. Nonetheless, it’s not a bad idea to consider your other options. After all, the purpose of bedding may be fairly simple---to cushion and insulate the floor surface---but a variety of factors can determine the best choice for a particular situation.
Beyond availability and cost, the potential for dustiness is always an important consideration, as is the “palatability” of a material--- for a variety of reasons, you don’t want bedding that your horse will be tempted to eat. Another variable is absorbency: A highly absorbent material that can capture urine and slow the development of ammonia fumes may be the best choice for horses on high protein diets and/or for horsekeepers with tight mucking schedules.
Weighing these factors can become a little complicated. “The bedding material should be soft, so the horse won’t be reluctant to lie down, and absorbent,” says Brian Nielsen, PhD, of Michigan State University. “The big question, however, is whether the bedding material is economical---which is more likely to be the case if it’s readily available in your area. Something may be great for bedding but might be too expensive, especially if you have to ship it a long way.”
Cost will largely depend on your location. “In some areas, wood products are fairly inexpensive because sawmills or manufacturing facilities need to get rid of sawdust or shavings,” says Bob Coleman, PhD, the extension specialist at the University of Kentucky. “Situations change sometimes, however, with changes in the economy. If fewer people are building houses and the lumber mills are not making boards, there are fewer byproducts.”
Here’s an overview of common bedding options, along with some observations from experts. With this information, you can spend your next stall-cleaning session giving some productive thought to the material you’re sorting through.
PROS: widely available, aesthetically pleasing
CONS: can be prone to mold if harvested or stored improperly; horses may try to eat it; not very absorbent
Straw is the plant stalk left behind after cereal grains are harvested. The hollow stalks are cut, dried and baled. To produce hay, on the other hand, an entire grass or legume plant, including leaves and seed heads, is cut, dried and baled. The type of straw depends on the plant the stalk was supporting---usually wheat, oats or barley.
In addition to looking attractive, straw can make a very soft bedding, particularly if it’s chopped a second time after harvest. This softness can encourage horses to lie down and get more rest. Straw is also the bedding of choice for foaling, as opposed to wood shavings.
“If you are foaling on shavings or sawdust, the new wet baby gets completely covered with this material and the mare has a harder time licking the foal,” Nielsen explains. “This is not an issue with straw.”
Straw is, generally speaking, less dusty than wood products, but only if it’s harvested and stored correctly. A bale of straw needs to be checked as closely as a bale of hay for signs of moisture and mold. Straw can also be dusty if the grain was harvested with a combine that chopped the stalks into short lengths that are prone to shattering. One worry is the fact that, while straw is less palatable than hay, many horses will still eat it. Eating straw can lead to problems such as impaction colic or mouth irritation from barbed seed heads that were left on the plant.
“Where I grew up, we used straw,” says Coleman. “It’s tried and true, and most people know how to deal with it. We were fortunate because we could get wheat straw, which is fairly absorbent and horses rarely eat it. We didn’t want to use barley straw because some of the heads at that time had sharp awns that could puncture or get stuck in the mouth. You might be able to find embedded seeds near the incisors, but abscesses back by the cheek teeth would be difficult to find, and require major dental care to clean up.”
Nielsen adds that the absorption capacity of straw isn’t great. “If you’ve cleaned stalls that were bedded with straw, you’ll often notice that urine goes down through and pools underneath it,” he says.
In areas where cereal straw is available, another concern is what kind of bales you can get. Many farmers are no longer making small bales; it’s more cost-effective to put up big square bales---and these are hard to handle in a barn. “If you are getting big bales of straw, do you have a way to handle them when they come off the truck? Some barns are using big bales and they’ve had to rethink their day-to-day management. It takes a big tractor to move them, so you need a plan,” Coleman says.
PROS: widely available; more absorbent than straw
CONS: can be dusty; certain types of wood can cause allergic reactions; price can vary depending on local economic conditions
Wood-based beddings tend to perform well. “Wood products have a fair water-holding capacity, maybe a little better than straw, but this depends on how finely it is processed,” says Nielsen. “Sawdust will absorb more than shavings because it has more surface area than shavings.”
While more absorbent, sawdust is dustier than shavings, which can lead to or exacerbate respiratory problems. And certain woods can also be downright harmful to horses. “You have to be careful with some wood products because horses may react negatively to them,” says Coleman. “Some of the cedars have a lot of oil and these can cause allergic reactions or be too drying--- pulling moisture from hoof horn when horses are standing in these shavings,” he says. “You need to try some of these in small amounts first to see if they will work or not for a certain horse.”
One wood that is dangerous for every horse is black walnut, which can trigger laminitis in a horse who stands on it for even a short period of time. “You need to be aware of the source [of wood products] and be careful that there’s no black walnut in the material. Some people want to know how much black walnut would be safe, and the answer is zero,” says Coleman.
While sawdust and shavings are the most popular wood bedding products, pellets are also an option says Jenifer Nadeau, PhD, an equine extension specialist at the University of Connecticut, who states that for a while in her area, some horse owners were using wood pellets and liked them because they are very absorbent, “but now they are much more ex- pensive---since they have become popular for heating homes in pellet stoves.”
Coleman agrees that pelleted wood products, when available, can make good bedding. “Horse owners like pellets because you can get away with less material. After they get moist and start to expand, you end up with more volume. A shovelful of pellets might turn into two and a half shovelfuls of expanded pellets. Some people put down a few pellets and sprinkle them with a little water so they’ll expand. They don’t get the pellets very wet, so they will still absorb moisture from urine and manure in the stall.”
There may be differences in various pellets, in terms of hardwood or softwoods. “Some of the pellets used in heating stoves may be hardwood whereas most of the bedding pellets tend to be a softwood, but for bedding you can use either,” Coleman explains. “It is important, however, to know the source, and the kind of wood, to make sure you never end up with any black walnut wood.”
How much wood product beddings cost depends on many factors, including wider economic activity in your area. “When there is a lot of construction/building going on, there are more wood products available and prices are lower because they are produced in higher quantities. When construction is down they become higher priced and harder to find,” says Nadeau.
PROS: absorbent; unpalatable to horses
CONS: may require more frequent mucking; difficult to move with a wheelbarrow
Paper has several properties that can make for good bedding. “Some people use cardboard waste from manufacturing plants that cut out cardboard boxes,” says Coleman. “Small pieces can make nice bedding, and it’s absorbent, and the horses won’t eat it.”
Nonetheless, he says, “You don’t see paper bedding used much anymore. Part of the reason is that it was hard to deal with. If you take it out in a wheelbarrow and a breeze comes up, it might blow all over. Sourcing was also a problem unless you were close to a place to get it.”
Shredded newspapers have always had mixed reviews. “An argument against [news]paper is that it tends to get wet fairly quickly,” says Nielsen. “When you first put it in a stall it can look very good, but after it gets wet it is soggy and darker, and the printing ink can make a light-colored horse look dirty.”
Despite its drawbacks, Nielsen says he has met some people who love paper bedding. “I think it depends on how deep you are bedding a stall, how often you are changing it, etc. Some people have discovered techniques that work well.”
PROS: highly absorbent; low palatability for horses
CONS: expensive; difficult to find in the necessary quantities
You might be more familiar with it in a gardening setting, but peat moss---the dead, fibrous material that forms when mosses decompose in bogs---is also sometimes used as bedding for horses. There are definitely advantages to it: A little goes a long way, it’s extremely absorbent and horses generally won’t eat it. Peat moss is hard to find in many areas, however, and can be very expensive. “You may only be able to get it at a garden center,” says Nadeau.
The only time Nielsen has used peat moss as a bedding was for a research project: “The advantages include good absorption, and it’s soft and comfortable for the horse. Drawbacks are availability and cost and the fact it’s dark-colored. The horse may get dirty. It all depends on your priorities. If you want the stalls to look clean, peat moss would not be your first choice. It’s also harder to sort through and clean because it’s hard to tell the feces from the peat moss. If it’s your own horse and you are not worried about looks, it might be fine, except for the cost.”
The harvesting of peat moss is also somewhat controversial. Extraction of peat requires removing of the living surface of a bog, layers that can take decades to develop. Critics say the process also releases large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. For these reasons, environmental agencies in Britain are working to phase out the use of peat moss for all gardening by 2030.
PROS: easy to clean
CONS: not absorbent; can make a horse’s coat gritty; not soft; need to feed hay out of racks or pans to reduce ingestion of sand
Although sand is not widely used as a bedding material, in areas where it is abundant some horsekeepers make it work.
“I worked at one place where they bedded horses on sand,” says Nielsen. “There are plusses and minuses. Stall cleaning was very simple and didn’t take long; the sand falls right through your apple-picker fork. A disadvantage is poor water absorption. It may stay a bit wet unless you bring in new sand, but you are really not taking the sand out because you can sift through it so easily. Horses’ hair coats can become sandy, and another disadvantage is that it’s not very soft for them to lie down on. It tends to pack and get hard,” he says. “In some places, it may work because it’s available and cost- effective. “Maybe in a dry climate with low humidity it will stay drier.”
If you do choose to bed on sand, it’s vital to feed hay from pans or mats or racks---never directly off the floor. Otherwise, horses may ingest sand as they eat hay, leading to an accumulation in their gut and sand colic.
SHELLS AND SHIVES
PROS: economical where available
CONS: not absorbent; can be hard to find
Even experienced horsekeepers may be unfamiliar with these more unusual, but perfectly acceptable, bedding materials. For instance, hulls, shells or “husks” from nuts and grains can make for a suitable horse bedding, assuming you can find them in a large enough quantity.
“Peanut hulls are used as bedding in some southern regions and seem to work,” says Nielsen. “Rice hulls are an option in some areas. Rice hulls tend to stay dry because the moisture goes down through; they don’t absorb much. Availability is the biggest factor with these materials.” Ground hulls are often used as feed for other livestock, so looking for such a supplier would be a good place to start your search if you wanted to try them.
Also in the “other” category is flax. Popular in Canada and Europe, flax beddings have a limited but growing following in this country. Flax is a food and fiber crop grown primarily in cooler parts of the world. A byproduct of flax fiber processing is the “shive,” the woody core of the stalk. It has several industrial uses, including loose fill insulation and absorbency products. As a horse bedding, Coleman says, “people seem to like it because it is fairly absorbent and a small amount does a good job. It can be purchased in bags and is easy to transport.” Availability can be an issue, however, and some horse owners report it can be a bit slippery when first laid down.
A stabled horse spends the better part of his day in direct contact with his bedding. It’s worth the time, then, to periodically reassess what you’re using. Chances are your bedding it still suitable, but you’ll never know for sure until you take the time to consider other options.