An important consideration when choosing stall mats is the existing floor in your stalls. Most stall mat manufacturers say as long as a stall floor is compacted and level, just about any surface will work as a base for mats, although opinions vary on what surface (specifically, its moisture content and hardness) is ideal. See www.TheHorse.com/emag.aspx?id=9455 for last month's story that discussed stall floor construction.
(Editor's Note: Any brand names noted in this article are for discussion only. This article is not intended as definitive list of suppliers or features; inclusion does not imply endorsement.)
What's the Source?
Every rubber mat dealer feels its rubber mat is superior. However, all of the mat dealers we contacted were united in their preference for horse-specific mats over reused (not recycled) mats from industrial applications or general purpose mats. An industrial remnant, such as a chopped-off section of an old conveyor belt, might have metal shards or toxic chemicals embedded in it. General rubber matting can be too thin and could have nylon threads that shrink and expand differently than rubber, leading to curling mats.
Should your floor be covered by one piece or many?
TheRubberMan.com's signature product is its Tru-Stall One Piece Stable Flooring from their Tru-Fit line. This mat is a 17 mm-thick (eleven-sixteenths-inch) stall wall-to-stall wall surface. The 600-pound mat requires a crew and moving equipment to install, either theirs or yours. This mat addresses the hygiene and cleaning needs of veterinary clinics and breeding facilities. Larger custom-sized mats are available. The company's largest one-piece mat installed to date is a 15-foot by 34-foot mat for the elephant house at the Nashville Zoo. Its largest horse facility installation to date is 14 feet two inches by 26 feet two inches. This product retains a seam along the wall, although TheRub berMan.com sells a urethane sealer to form a continuous impervious surface around the stall.
Another example of a one-piece floor is Abacus Surfaces' Padenpor, a fully installed, seamless floor system. This floor is installed on-site in one layer of rubber and five layers of polyurethane. The system is available with custom colors, thicknesses from 9 mm to 38 mm, and customer- selected levels of texturing. The thicker and, therefore, softer floors are usually used in foaling and recovery stalls; the thinner ones are used in aisle or shed areas. The flooring can be continued up the walls without a break. The result is a bacteria-free surface that can be pressure washed and disinfected.
Professional installation is required. Melissa Proud, with Abacus, calls it the Cadillac of rubber floors.
However, not all of us drive Cadillacs. Similarly, the small stable owner does not use a pressure washer to clean stalls, nor does her facility require routine decontamination of stalls.
TheRubberMan.com also sells smaller mats that fit together to fill a stall. TheRubberMan.com President Alf Caldwell explains, "Some don't need a one-piece floor. They don't need the cleanliness that vets need."
Proud points out that a custom system might not be suitable for some applications. An equine trainer leasing stalls in a larger facility would not want to put major capital improvements into a building owned by someone else.
Smaller mats are less expensive, easier to install, portable, and can be lifted up if you so desire--more on that later. Proud also points out that if one piece is damaged, the individual piece can be replaced without having to redo the floor. Abacus guarantees its mats and fully expects them to stand up under use, but, "Everything with horses can be damaged," Proud points out.
Tires or trees? Rubber can be produced from natural latex, synthesized from polymers, or recycled from previous applications. Recycled rubber can be 100% post-consumer or an unused byproduct from an industrial process. Rubber mats for horses contain a combination of these, with an emphasis on recycled, post-consumer sources.
Humane Mats sold by Abacus Surfaces are 100% recycled rubber, mainly from tires that do not contain steel belts.
Another company cleans the rubber, which Humane buys and regrinds to make the material more solid. (For more information on vulcanization, the process of treating crude or synthetic rubber to give it useful properties, revulcanization, and the composition of rubber mats, see "Secrets of Rubber Mats" at www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?id=140.)
Group Summit's stall mat product line covers a range of materials. Protector mats are made from recycled rubber, but at a lower post-consumer content than the rubber utilized in most mat production. In addition to tires that were traded in, they use tires that failed the factory quality control and rubber scrap from tire, tube, and gasket manufacturing. The Mustang mats are made with a high content of natural virgin rubber. The Mighty Lite mats are made of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), a dense, but lightweight closed-cell polymer foam. Closed-cell means the foam will not absorb liquids.
The large 12 by 12 mats from TheRub berMan.com are reclaimed rubber with virgin rubber added for flexibility. According to Caldwell, mats made strictly from car tires would be too stiff to roll. TheRubberMan.com requires a higher-grade, more flexible material in order to roll the large mats for handling and shipping. Their small stall mats are made from the same material as the large mats.
Should they be straight or interlocking? If the mat is not stall-sized, the floor will require several mats fitted together. The mats can have straight edges or edges with interlocking tabs. Straight-edge mats lie close together and rely on weight and friction against the floor to keep from shifting. Interlocking edges do just as advertised. The mats interlock like a giant rubber puzzle to form the floor.
Group Summit sells mats with puzzle edge all the way around or a straight edge on the outside and interlock on the inside. Carin Sheehan, sales director with Group Summit, explains, "The advantage of the puzzle edge is you can add an EVA-edge finish kit or special rubber mat pieces to make the outside edge straight and to boost the floor out to a full 12 by 12. Another advantage (to puzzle-piece mats) is you can link mats together for large stalls or aisleways."
The EVA not only is the polymer foam used in Summit's Mighty Lite product, but it's also used as a cushioning layer in more expensive athletic footwear.
TheRubberMan.com sells left corner, right corner, and middle mats, with interlock on common edges and straight edges on outside. To make their 4 by 6 interlock mat, TheRubberMan.com cuts down a larger-sized mat. The mats finish out to exactly 12 by 12. Therefore the stall is rubber to the wall, not edged with different material.
Companies also offer help with sizing for odd-sized or strangely shaped stalls, or most of the mats can be trimmed with a utility knife or a Sawzall. Caldwell says he expects most customers will have to do some amount of trimming, perhaps a notch here or there.
Straight-edge mats are an inexpensive way to rubberize a stall, but they have their problems, as inexpensive solutions tend to. As the temperature goes from 100 degrees in the summer to 20 degrees in the winter and the humidity goes from sauna-sweat to skin-cracking dry, Caldwell explains, "Your floor mats in the barn are reacting to that." The rubber expands and contracts.
Individual mats that aren't connected can expand and contract in different directions. This leaves open seams to collect shavings and muck. Straight edges also offer more purchase for pawing hooves. Interlocking mats solve the shifting and moving issues by forcing the rubber to expand and contract as a single unit. This is the behavior of a one-piece floor, without the price. Caldwell has also found that with straight-edge mats, stall owners can sometimes feel the seam with their pitchfork.
Sheehan says, "Many people ask me what I would put in my own stall. Definitely something interlocking because I don't want to waste time repositioning or battling stall mats. I'd rather be out riding."
Should it be flat or formed? While every mat offers slightly different features, the underside provides the biggest source of competing claims from mat companies. Channels on the underside provide drainage vs. a good mat does not need drainage. Channels make the mat softer vs. channels make the mat weaker. Here's the word from the manufacturers:
"With the grooved undersides," says Proud from Abacus, "to have that much water that grooves or drains are needed is a huge problem when used in stalls and aisles. There have been complaints with the grooves of manure and other obvious objects like bedding in stalls that block these grooves anyway. Humane mats lay snuggly fit against the base, making them more stable, secure, and stronger."
Sheehan from Group Summit offers a rebuttal: "I agree, if you have a huge amount of water under your mats there is a problem. If a small amount does get under the mats, the footed or grooved bottom is an advantage and will help the moisture aerate instead of making a moldy or mildew mess as a flat-backed mat can do." Sheehan reports that one customer lifted her grooved mats after two years and found the undersides bone dry. "Another advantage of the grooved bottom is that it provides flex and feels more cushioning than a flat-backed mat. The groove gives somewhere for the energy and weight of the horse to go."
TheRubberMan.com's mats have a ribbed bottom. Caldwell says, "We really believe that makes the mats a little bit softer than flat-bottomed mats."
TheRubberMan.com mats are not weaker, Caldwell states, because of the superior compound used in their mats. He has rolled his mats up, driven a truck over them, and unrolled them unharmed. One of his parlor tricks for trade shows is to fold over a mat and have people stand on the fold. Caldwell challenges someone to show him a mat from TheRubberMan.com that has failed because of the ribbing.
Are they slippery when wet? Most companies form some manner of pattern into the surface of their mat to promote traction. Abacus has a small diamond pattern for stall mats and a larger button pattern for wash stalls and trailer ramps. TheRub berMan.com uses alternating ovoids.
However, texture patterns need to be balanced against maneuvering the pitchfork among the bumps. Also, traction is more than a surface issue.
Sheehan explains, "What gives a horse traction on a mat is the ability of the weight of the horse to sink into the mat." Consider walking on sand versus walking across a marble floor.
To lift or not to lift? Few things are more vile than wrestling a heavy rubber mat off the floor and getting your clothes coated with the Clorox and urine from under the mat. If the mat is too light, it will not hold up to heavy use. If it is too heavy, cleaning is either delayed, dreaded, or both.
One way companies solve this problem is to offer durable, lightweight versions, such as Summit's Mighty Lites. Mainly, the companies address the problem of cleaning under a mat by making it unnecessary, thereby avoiding the above scenario entirely. Installed floor systems obviously cannot be lifted up.
At 600 pounds, TheRubberMan.com's 12 by 12 mats are not going anywhere. The Nashville Zoo is gluing their elephant mat to the floor. The 4 by 6 mats weigh about 100 pounds, and are liftable, but heavy. However, Proud says that most of Abacus' customers put their mats down and never lift them up.
Caldwell's theory is that the mats form a barrier between the base of the stall and the bedding.
"It holds 99.9% of the liquid up there with a tight, interlocking fit," he says. "Therefore there is no need to lift a mat. I expect the typical stable owner to install the mats and not touch them for 15-20 years. The only reason to move a mat is if the vet says to disinfect the barn from top to bottom."
Most companies have replacement policies and offer warranties of slightly differing lengths.
Abacus offers damage replacement for its mats, but how do you return a 105-pound purchase? You don't have to. "If a customer called me up needing to return one, I would call Humane and set up a time for a delivery truck to pick up the mat," says Proud. "This may differ from seller to seller. This would not have to be boxed."
Sheehan reminds horse owners that rubber stall mats are like any other purchase, "There are different qualities of rubber, and like leather in tack, you get what you pay for."
About the Author
Katherine Walcott is a freelance writer living in the countryside near Birmingham, Al. She writes for anyone she can talk into paying her and rides whatever disciplines she can talk her horses into doing.