Your horse is on his feet most of the day and night. He prefers to feel dry, with his feet at room temperature. He wants to stand on a surface that's resilient and doesn't smell bad. Listen to your horse, and you will want to promote his health from the ground up. Confining the animal in a stall 23 hours a day puts him in constant contact with the stall floor. The more the stall floor meets equine preferences, the better your horse will feel.
COURTESY ST. LOUIS FACTORY SUPPLY, INC.
Floor mats provide a resilient, comfortable surface.
Consider the negative effects that a floor can create. A urine-soaked surface can lead to thrush, or to respiratory problems from breathing ammonia vapors. A cold floor conducts heat away from the limbs. If the horse lies down on a cold floor, he's likely to lose even more body heat. A hard, unyielding surface can worsen arthritic joints and cause scrapes on your horse's limbs when he lies down or gets up. Bedding can offset some of the unhealthy aspects of the surface of a stall floor, but it is the floor itself that oftentimes needs to be addressed as the culprit. (For details on bedding choices, consult the Equinomics in the October 1996 issue.)
Whether you're building new stalls or retrofitting existing ones, you can choose among a variety of floor surfaces. Here are some old and new solutions.
Your floor should be constructed of layers of surfaces. The topmost surface takes the most abuse from the pressure of the horse's weight, and it also contributes the most to the animal's comfort. But what is below that surface also is important to your horse's comfort and health.
Natural subfloor surfaces include earthen materials, mineral materials, and wood. Dirt and clay are the typical earthen surfaces. In an older barn, you might see a sod floor, comprised of turf, or ground substance held together by matted roots of grass.
Crushed rock is a popular choice. Porous rocks such as limestone or decomposed granite promote drainage. These rocks have been processed into a substance finer than stones, but coarser than sand. You might see crushed rock described as aggregate, which can be defined as mineral materials used in making concrete. Consult your local rock supplier or quarry (look in the Yellow Pages under "Rock") for available materials in your area.
Plain old dirt tends to pack and get hard. A floor of such hardpan, or a layer of hard subsoil or clay, offers no cushion. Horses that paw or dig might spend stall time trying to gouge craters in the floor.
A dirt floor also can cause you to create a hole in the stall floor. The horse probably will urinate in the same spot. You remove the urine-soaked dirt, and you make the depression deeper and wider. Adding bedding to fill the hole doesn't solve the problem, as the horse finds the spot even more absorbent than the rest of the stall.
Another natural material is wood, in the form of thick boards or planks. Some owners prefer wood as the stall floor, set on a bed of gravel to encourage drainage. Wood can become slippery when wet.
A subfloor can be paved with the manmade substances, such as concrete or asphalt. Concrete is a hard, strong construction material; asphalt is a familiar road surface. Both pavement materials are durable yet unforgiving--these are best used as subfloors.
Whatever the choice, the floor needs to be level. A flat floor avoids stress on the forelegs. Jan Pearson, of Groundmaster, said, "Leg and back problems can be the result of a horse standing on an unlevel floor. Think about it--for you, it's like wearing a flat shoe on one foot, and a high-heeled shoe on another."
The barn's subfloor should be raised six to nine inches above adjoining ground. This slight elevation promotes drainage away from the barn and keeps the stall drier. A barn level with its surroundings can get flooded in severe storms.
Prepare the subfloor so you have a completely level and hard surface. A dirt or crushed rock subfloor must be firm and packed. Follow landscapers' directions for tamping and rolling layers of decomposed granite, usually called d.g. Start with an excavated stall, so you can build up the subfloor to a layer of three to five inches thick. For a three-inch layer, you'd need about 1 1/3 cubic yards of d.g.
Apply a first thin layer of d.g., about 1 1/2 inches. Soak the d.g. with water, and compact the layer with a heavy roller. Allow it to sit for about eight hours, then add the next layer. You'll repeat with a third layer for your three-inch surface. For a thicker layer of d.g., buy more material and apply in more layers. The multiple, thin applications allow the entire mass to compact into a properly packed subfloor.
Picking Through Products
On top of a subfloor, you can choose among special products made for the horse's comfort. Rubber and plastic flooring are the "carpets" of your barn. Shaped as mats, interlocking tiles, or modular materials, these safety surfaces provide a level cushion.
Rubber mats are a popular choice in many new and existing barns. Mats are butted tightly against each other to cover wall to wall, with edges cut at 90-degree angles for close seams.
Most mats are molded from recycled tires, in a revulcanization process. Different brands can vary in quality of material, bonding method, and design. Lew Nichols, of Handi-Klasp Company, explained, "After they grind up the tires, they put virgin rubber back in when they remold. It makes a difference (in quality) in how much virgin rubber they add, and how well they separate old tire cords from wire." Rubber mats also can be reinforced with vinyl.
Most mats are molded to be three-quarters of an inch thick. The rubber provides a resilient, comfortable surface. Placed over dirt or crushed rock, the mat reduces dust in the stall.
"The coldness and dampness of the ground don't come up through the mat," said Nichols. "You don't have as much arthritis in the joints as you do when a horse is standing on dirt." He said mats also can reduce a horse's tendency to stock up.
Better designs are textured on the top surface for traction--a smooth surface could be slippery, especially when wet. The mat also should be grooved or corrugated on the underside to help with drainage and to retard curling. Look for mats designed with these features.
Rubber mats are popular in the dairy industry. One primarily dairy industry company has started selling a mat two inches thick for equestrian use. The company reported installing 50,000 in dairy barns. The benefits of the the thicker mats are currently being researched in tests conducted by two universities in the United States and Canada.
Newer floor systems are molded of plastic, available in rolls, or found in interlocked tiles. These flooring alternatives are made as a perforated surface. The grid design allows fluids to permeate past the plastic and through the subfloor.
Manufacturers list benefits as being light in weight, durable, and stabilizing the ground in a level plane. Examples of plastic systems currently on the market include a one-piece polyethylene (polymerized ethylene resin) sheeting, and an extruded product, comprised of strings of polyvinyl chloride (PVC, a thermoplastic resin) bonded by heat pressure.
Thick Or Thin, Porous Or Packed?
Barn builders and manufacturers debate these two issues. The decision depends on what's appropriate for the horse and the barn environment.
How much cushion does the horse need? Traditional rubber stall mats are three-quarters of an inch thick, whether placed over a hard subfloor, such as concrete, or a less-permanent surface of dirt or crushed rock. Some of the newer plastic floor systems are less thick, from one-quarter inch to one-half inch.
A thicker layer results in a denser, heavier material. A rubber mat tends to lie flat and won't move, although a softer mat could wear out faster. The "give" you deem necessary can relate to your like or dislike of the soles of athletic shoes--does a thick sole feel more comfortable? Or would you prefer a wearing a thicker sock against a thinner sole?
A primary controversy is how to control urine in the stall. You want a clean stall that's dry and odor-free. Should you allow urine to drain into the earth, away from the horse? Or should you trap urine on the top of the floor, so it absorbs into bedding and you transfer bedding for disposal elsewhere?
On a surface like a mat, urine either pools on the rubber or soaks into shavings. You must remove the residue regularly. Some owners contend that urine confined on a mat can increase the ammonia smell in the barn.
With the plastic grid's more open design, urine flows through to be absorbed into the ground through natural drainage, away from the horse. Set on a subfloor of crushed rock, the urine should be wicked away from the horse's feet. The plastic's textured surface does not become slippery.
The crushed rock subfloor can neutralize the urine's smell, but you also might decide to use a disinfectant to control odors. For example, Groundmaster suggests the Tek-Trol disinfectant. B.E.S.T. recommends its Odor Control product for use with its PVC stall matting. This water-based enzyme eliminates odor instead of masking it. You can saturate the subfloor before installing the stall matting, and re-apply it at later intervals.
The different manufacturers promote their product design. Mat companies advertise rubber mats as nonabsorbent, but still able to be disinfected.
Critics of mats complain that urine penetrates rubber and soaks under the mat, working its way through the seams. The odor can seep into the rubber and give that ammonia smell. One deterrent to seepage is an interlocked mat design, with pieces fitting together like a puzzle.
Some owners claim that even with mats, the ground underneath should be disinfected. The only way to do this is to pry up the mats, which are unwieldy to lift and move.
Mats set on a concrete subfloor might not need to be moved. Washing the mat can flush out any odors due to seepage.
Critics of plastic flooring claim that the subfloor can't drain away the urine, and the soil stays wet. However, plastic grids don't need to be moved, as you can disinfect the ground right through the mat.
Pearson described her company's product as a natural choice, "a soil stabilization system. You can put in a better ground than normal. If your barn is in a clay area that doesn't drain, you can drill holes with an auger and put in stone or limestone screenings. Liquid will seek the lower ground, go down in holes, and disperse. The liquid leaches into the ground." The product has been tested in a University of Florida study, with results posted on Groundmaster's Web site (www.groundmasterequine.com) .
Dirt Cheap, Or Cost-Efficient?
Cutting corners in your stall floor investment can cost you more over the years. You might spend more time and money on adding and removing bedding, or rebuilding floors that horses damage.
If you stick with dirt or crushed rock as your primary floor, the surface can become unlevel. You'll have to rebuild the surface by excavating, adding material, and releveling the floor.
Besides affecting the horse's limbs, an unlevel floor increases bedding costs. You tend to apply extra forkfuls to fill in dips.
Covering a subfloor with rubber mats can run from $250 to $450 for a 12 x 12 stall. While prices vary among dealers, the size of the stall will determine the overall cost of mats. Plastic flooring can run around $400 for the 12 x 12 stall.
Some owners choose cheaper alternatives. You might hear about "cattle mats," said to be cheaper than mats made for horses. Some people even install used conveyor belts in horse barns.
You might need only two large rubber mats for a 12 x 12 stall, or a half-dozen 4 x 6 sections. In choosing the size, ask yourself if you'll ever move the mats. Two large three-quarter-inch-thick mats can weigh 300 pounds each. Compare this to hefting the 90-pound 4 x 6 mat. (If you pick the two-inch-thick mat, expect that 4 x 6 piece to weigh in around 200 pounds.)
Proper installation of mats can make the difference between a trouble-free floor or an irritating and unsafe surface. You want the floor to remain flat and level, with tight seams.
Laying rubber mats on your subfloor is like placing vinyl tiles. For good seams, edges must butt tightly at 90-degree angles. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to cut the mats to fit at walls and around posts. For a premium installation, Summit Rubber Products markets a system that seals the seams for a floor that is watertight, wall-to-wall.
The mat at the doorway must cover the threshold and extend under the door. This layout prevents a stalled horse from pawing the edge of the mat.
To install a plastic floor, you fit pieces as you would a rubber mat, roll out a one-piece mat, or interlock tiles. Although plastic is lighter in weight, you'll still need a well-prepared subfloor. Follow specific instructions to fit and anchor the flooring.
Make sure to look at the manufacturer's warranty. Warranties vary, with examples including six-months with money back, two-year with full replacement, or even a 10-year warranty. Ask for local references, and visit barns to investigate product performance.
Installing rubber mats or plastic flooring doesn't eliminate maintenance. You'll still need to preserve the floor's integrity by cleaning and checking the surface.
Before making your final selection, ask questions about long-term durability. How will the surface remain firmly in place? About mats, will the rubber get hard and brittle with age, or crack? Will horses' hooves abrade the rubber? Will corners curl up, edges peel loose, or the surface tear and rip?
About plastic, will the grid twist or curl at the seam or corner? If anchored in place, do anchors remain firmly seated on edges?
Quality stall flooring is a barn feature that pays off. Rubber mats or plastic flooring offer easy maintenance and less bedding-features that save you time and money. You save costs of supplying bedding, and you reduce labor with less time spent to add or remove bedding. Owners who've installed mats report reducing bedding costs as much as 75%. Some are able to recoup their stall flooring investment within six months, although most companies estimate 1 1/2 to two years.
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.
POLL: Managing Working Horses