Bedding Choices

Investigate which bedding choice is safe, healthful, and cost-effective for your operation. 

Stalls have traditionally been bedded with materials that provide cushion and absorbency. Good bedding creates a layer of insulation between the horse and a cold floor, pads the hard surface, prevents bruised knees, elbows, hocks, and hips, and keeps the horse cleaner. Even when cushiony and easy-to-clean stall mats are used, most horse owners add a bedding material on top of the mat to create a cleaner and more comfortable environment for the horse.

Bedding can be created from a variety of materials. Factors to be considered when selecting bedding are availability, cost, freedom from dust and foreign material, and palatability--bedding should be something the horse won't eat. Choose material compatible with your stall flooring, and something that can be readily disposed of.


In a region where grain is grown, straw might be the cheapest and most available type of bedding. If it must be hauled very far, however, trucking costs make it quite expensive. Bob Coleman, PhD, extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky, says it might also be challenging to use straw for barn stalls if it's only available in large bales, which can be difficult to maneuver without the proper equipment. Many farmers no longer make small bales, since the big ones are easier to haul, stack, and store with farm equipment.

According to Brett Scott, PhD, extension horse specialist at Texas A&M University, wheat, barley, rye, or oat straw is acceptable for bedding, but make sure that whatever you use has been harvested without any seed heads left in it, or horses will eat it. Wheat straw is often the bedding of choice because it is less palatable than oat, rye, or barley straw, and it is less abrasive than barley. Oat straw is most palatable; horses might consume so much they won't eat their other feed, or they could become impacted. The sharp awns of barley can become embedded in the horse's mouth.

Wheat stalks in earlier times were cut full length, which created a dust-free straw, but most wheat today is harvested with combines and stalks are chopped into shorter lengths, with more shattering and dust particles. Dust and mold can be detrimental to horses, so make sure the straw is harvested with proper moisture conditions. Dusty straw in an enclosed barn can lead to respiratory problems. Scott recommends lightly wetting straw down with water if it's dusty when you shake it up in the stall.

Straw makes a good bed because it dries well and stays fairly clean if manure is picked out often, but it is not as absorbent as some other types of bedding. "It can be difficult to clean; you typically have to remove a large amount to clean out the manure and, thus, end up using more total bedding," says Scott. It provides good drainage, however, letting urine seep down through it to the stall floor. With straw bedding, you want the floor well-covered, making a deep bed to shield the horse from liquid at the floor level.


Before selecting a bedding, determine how you'll clean the stall (what equipment you need), whether you can compost bedding, or how you'll be able to dispose of it. Wood products, for instance, don't break down as quickly as some other materials when composted.

"One problem with all types of bedding in some areas is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to dispose of," says Brett Scott, PhD, extension horse specialist at Texas A&M University. "Many states or counties have stringent rules on environmental issues. In some regions if you are close to a watershed they won't allow disposal of bedding products on your property even if it's composted. In some areas you must dispose of bedding/manure in specified places or dumpsters to be picked up. Otherwise, disposal of bedding can be done in pastures after being composted. It should be distributed with a manure spreader that disperses it uniformly. You don't want piles and clumps."

--Heather Smith Thomas

Straw is only cost-effective in regions that grow grain, and it was more widely used 25 years ago. "When I lived in Kentucky, it was used a lot," says Scott. "You also find it in many areas of the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest." But the price of straw has gone up, and it could go up more with increased use by ethanol plants (biofuel).

"Here in south central Texas, straw is generally used only in foaling stalls," says Scott. "It's much better than sawdust or sand, or any bedding with small particles. Straw is easy to get off newborn foals and doesn't stick to them, and they aren't as apt to inhale or ingest it," he says. The placenta is also easier to clean off and examine when it's landed in straw bedding than in shavings or sawdust.

Hay As Bedding

"In our area, some people use hay bedding," says Coleman. "Traditionally it's bluegrass; you let it get mature before cutting and baling. Horses will eat it, but this won't cause impaction, in contrast to straw. The horse can process the mature grass and move it on through."

It doesn't matter if the horse eats some; this gives him something to do when confined. Many people feel horses are more content when bedded on hay. Some people even feed the used bedding to cattle to maximize their resources, says Coleman.

Wood Products

Availability and cost of wood products depends on the timber industry. In regions where lumber is processed, wood-derived bedding might be the most economical type. In some areas, however, closure of sawmills due to halting of timber harvesting on public lands has eliminated regional timber industries. In other areas wood products for bedding are scarce due to greater demands for other purposes.

"Here in Texas this past year wood shavings and sawdust have been nearly impossible to find," says Scott. "With many areas in Louisiana and Mississippi doing reconstruction after hurricanes, people are salvaging everything they can, shipping lumber quickly. Inferior wood that was earlier turned into bedding products is being used as building materials. Horsemen are on waiting lists at feed suppliers and dealers who carry shavings and sawdust products."

Wood-derived bedding can be sawdust, shavings, or chips. If you are close to the source, some companies will deliver bulk products to your farm. "Generally this is sawdust; shavings are more often a packaged product," says Coleman. "If you use sawdust, be aware that it can be dusty. If a horse is walking around in the stall, he'll churn up a lot of dust."

Sawdust is often too fine to use for horse bedding because horses might get particles in their eyes and noses. Shavings are fluffier and make good bedding, whereas chips are sometimes too coarse, with sharp pieces that might be hazardous or uncomfortable.

Sawdust and shavings absorb moisture, while chips do not. Also, the larger the chunks, the more chance for splinters, says Scott. Shavings make a soft and insulating bed, horses usually won't eat them, and they can be easy to haul and store if bagged. Some types of softwood shavings, like pine, are more absorbent than straw. Bulk shavings can be difficult to store, however, and they must be kept dry.

Soft woods like pine and fir make good bedding, but hardwoods are less absorbent. "Some hardwoods don't make good bedding unless they're ground up as sawdust, and some--especially black walnut--can be toxic to horses," says Scott.

Oak might have too much acid. An alkaloid found in yellow poplar can cause itching, although other members of the poplar family are safe for bedding. Cedar might not work; even though it smells good and inhibits insects, some horses develop allergic reactions to the oils in cedar products, says Scott. Make sure wood has not been treated with chemicals or preservatives that might irritate the skin. Wood shavings can be dusty and might need to be lightly watered with fine spray from a hose. Shavings compress and pack down with the weight of the horse, so you'll need to add extra bedding to compensate.

Pelleted wood bedding is available as a bagged product. "You have to water the pellets after they're put in the stall," says Scott. "Moisture expands the pellets, making them softer as well as increasing volume. They are expensive because they've had a lot of processing, but being compressed, they come in smaller packages and are easy to haul, handle, and store, and have good absorption. When a horse urinates, the moisture is absorbed and concentrated in one spot, which makes a stall easier to clean. And since the pellets must be watered after you put them in the stall, they are not dusty. One drawback is that you don't have any way to know what kind of wood is in them."

Wood takes longer to break down than straw when composted, and it is more acidic. Lime can be added when the material is put on fields or pastures to help neutralize the acid.

"If you compost wood products, the material needs a higher level of nitrogen (higher percentage of manure to bedding ratio) because of the high carbon levels in the wood," says Coleman.

He recommends talking with your county extension agent about composting.

Alternative Bedding Materials

There are many other things that can be used as bedding, including shredded paper, peat moss, rice hulls, soybean hulls, peanut shells, and other byproducts of the food industry. Sand and volcanic aggregate are also used in regions where they are available. The latter can be used in stalls or paddocks and is lightweight and porous. It can be purchased in bulk or bagged, and it is used under other types of bedding to provide better drainage.

"Some people bed horses on sand," says Scott. "Others worry about sand colic. Sand may not keep your horse very clean, and you may have to remove a lot of it every day to keep the stall clean. But if you can buy sand cheaply, it is much more comfortable than a solid floor."

Shredded paper might be an option, as long as it is from known sources and has been properly processed. It is highly absorbent, hypoallergenic, fairly dust-free, and comfortable to the horse. A plus is that the ink generally is not toxic, and its carbon content tends to absorb and reduce odors.

However, ink can be transferred to light-colored horses and to stall walls.

There might be an issue with blowing newspaper when bedding and waste are spread on the fields, but if the newspaper is composted prior to spreading, the chances of that should decrease.

Even if horses eat some of the paper, it doesn't seem harmful. Newspapers and phone books are printed with a nontoxic vegetable dye, but ink on some other types of paper might not be as safe. Make sure the source is safe.

Scott says some processing plants that recycle and shred newspapers for bedding run the material through a bleach solution to dilute the ink and take some of it out of the paper. "But the more processing that goes into any product, the higher the price," he explains. Paper is very absorbent, but it takes a lot of the product to bed a stall. After you put it in the stall it looks like you have a lot, but it compacts quickly.

Rice hulls are used in some areas (available in bags) as a byproduct of beer brewing. Rice hulls are lightweight and not very absorbent, working best in stalls that have good drainage, or used in conjunction with another type of bedding such as wood shavings. The mix acts the same way as multilayered disposable diapers; the lighter rice hulls tend to rise to the top and the heavier shavings settle to the bottom. Moisture seeps through the top layer of hulls into the more absorbent shavings, leaving the top surface dry and comfortable. Rice hulls also have the advantage of being less flammable than some other types of bedding. Scott says that hull materials (rice, soybean, peanut shells, etc.) are not very absorbent and not very soft because these are the protective outer coating of seeds. He also advises owners to make sure horses don't eat them.

"Any type of hull is plant material; some horses nibble on these, more than on wood products," he says.

Peat moss makes good bedding, but it is only available in certain areas. "It has great absorbent qualities and is fine for compost, but can be a bit dusty," says Coleman. "Horses won't eat it, and you don't need very much to cover the stall floor. It comes in bales (plastic bags containing 2 or 3 cubic feet), like you'd buy at a garden store. Most people who use it have only a few horses." A little goes a long way, and you can pick out soiled areas and add small amounts to refresh the bedding.

If you are considering alternative bedding products, ask questions; find out how they are used and handled, and check with other people who are using them. Coleman's advice: "Try it out by getting enough to do one or two stalls to see how it handles, and if it will work for you, and how you can dispose of it."

Take-Home Message

No matter what bedding type you use, be sure your horse won't eat too much of it and that he isn't sensitive to it. There might be mites in straw, or molds on straw or wood products, and some horses could develop skin problems or allergies. Be sure it works for your horse before buying in bulk.

Bedding Comparison Chart

  • Less expensive in areas where grown
  • Stays clean if picked out regularly
  • Great for foaling stalls
  • Provides good drainage
  • If hauled in, can be expensive
  • Horses might eat it
  • Not as absorbent
  • Can be dusty
Sawdust/ Wood Shavings
  • Depending on location, can be easy/cheap to find
  • Can be delivered in bulk
  • Absorbent
  • Closure of sawmills means availability shrinks
  • Can get in horses' eyes
  • Can be dusty
  • Lightweight
  • Porous
  • Can be purchased in bags or bulk
  • Can be used under other bedding
  • Can cause sand colic
  • Might have to remove a lot every day to keep stall clean
Shredded paper
  • Highly absorbent
  • Dust-free
  • Ink's carbon content tends to absorb and reduce odors
  • Not harmful if horses eat some of it
  • Ink color can transfer to light-colored animals
  • Ink can rub off on walls
  • Not ideal for spreading on fields after use
  • Can be expensive
Peat moss
  • Absorbent
  • Horses won't eat it
  • A little goes a long way
  • Easily found in bags at garden stores
  • Dusty
  • Not economical for more than a few stalls
  • Horses can eat it and it won't cause an impaction
  • Gives stalled horses more "grazing" time
  • Can feed used bedding to cattle
  • High hay prices make hay scarce

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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