Demystifying Mats and Bedding
By David Preston • Sep 01, 2011 • Article #28229
Photo: The Horse Staff
Let's face it: Horse stall maintenance is not the romantic part of horse ownership. Urine and manure reek, and an excess of these two waste products creates unsafe and unhealthy conditions for the animals in our care. There are a variety of opinions about the different mats and materials available to help keep our stalls clean and our horses comfortable--let's dig a little deeper and look at our reason for these materials.
The average 1,000-pound horse produces approximately 30 pounds of manure and 2.5 gallons of urine for a total of roughly 50 pounds of waste per day. That equates to about a cubic foot of material, before taking into account the soiled bedding removed with it. If the horse is turned out a portion of every day, not all of this waste will be deposited in the stall, but a big mess will likely still be waiting for you at stall cleaning time.
Another problem to keep in mind is the unnatural condition that stalls create for the animal. Long periods of confinement reduce blood circulation and stress his complex and fragile suspension system, resulting in "stocked up" legs and other health problems. A stalled horse might lie down, taking advantage of the sense of safety that a stall seems to give him. But repetitive lying down and getting back up in a confined space places additional stress on joints, tendons, and ligaments, and it can also cause scrapes and friction burns. Therefore, you might decide to install mats and/or bedding suitable for your stabling situation to help keep your horse cozy and your stalls (relatively) clean.
The Foundation: Basic Stall Floor Construction
Stall flooring materials can be impervious or porous. Concrete is the most common type of impervious flooring. It must be at least four inches thick to prevent excessive cracking or formation of weak spots. Rubber floor mats atop this type of floor can provide resilience, ease joint stress, and reduce friction when the animal lies down. You must keep bedding deep enough and change it often so it absorbs liquids sufficiently and prevents mats from becoming slippery. The exception is with stall floors that slope to drains.
Porous asphalt stall floors are common in some areas. In theory the asphalt used in stalls consists of a coarser mix than that used for paving and, when installed, it is less compact. The resulting "popcorn" asphalt allows liquids to drain through to the coarse stone bed beneath and disperse gradually into the soil. Always spread this material evenly and at least two inches deep, as shallow areas will wear prematurely and holes with rough edges will form. This system works well for years if installed properly, but the rough surface can cause abrasions. Thus, use thick bedding in stalls or, once again, floor mats. Eventually, after years of use, the small spaces between the aggregate fill with sand and dust, rendering it impervious.
Often natural materials are used for stall floors, with clay or sand being the most common. In either case a layer of highly porous material needs to be put down underneath to allow for natural drainage into the soil. (For instance, place at least four inches of gravel below the topping material.) Sand is easier to grade and easier on horses' legs than clay. However, sand that is washed free of dust and other "fines" will not compact well and tends to move. Many quarries sell a version of "Class I" sand that includes the fines; this material compacts well and retains its shape. Unlike sand, clay tends to soften when wet, inviting holes and uneven floor surfaces. In any case, these natural floors require regular maintenance and should be covered with rubber mats. A well-compacted sand floor topped with floor mats is a reasonably economical, easy-to-maintain system used in many commercial horse barns. These stalls require less bedding because the liquids can drain through cracks in the mats and the more forgiving surface reduces scrapes and burns. However, natural sand or clay stalls are not ideal for foaling or quarantine areas that require periodic disinfecting. (For stall disinfection tips from a veterinarian, see this video.)
Some owners install brick or rubber pavers in aisleways, but they're not a wise choice for use in stalls because they are expensive, wear quickly, and drain poorly if laid on concrete.
Types of Floor Mats
Grid Mats are constructed of rubber or polyurethane and designed to be placed on a compacted porous base. The open cells are then topped with sand or clay. The openings allow for drainage, and the grid structure can reduce mat damage from pawing or traffic. This improves the characteristics of a totally natural floor surface while maintaining porosity. Some owners of concrete floors drill a pattern of holes in the concrete and place grid mats filled with sand on top. This creates some drainage while providing a more natural surface for the horse to stand on. However, you should replace worn grid mats, or holes with jagged edges of grid material might develop. Open cells might require refilling with sand or clay regularly.
Solid Rubber Mats are designed to be placed on porous or impervious floors. The mats themselves are impervious and usually sized to allow for joints in the stall floor area that permit limited drainage. Rubber mats in concrete-floor wash stalls typically have one-inch or larger holes drilled in the drain area to allow for more rapid water evacuation. These mats are made from a variety of materials, often recycled. Durability and thickness vary greatly--from a half inch to more than one inch thick--and mats should be textured on the surface to promote traction. If the mats are placed on an impervious floor the underside should be channeled to allow urine to escape. The cushioning provided by rubber helps reduce joint stress, which makes these mats favorites for performance horse stalls. Good-quality rubber mats are expensive and heavy. A typical 4-by-6-foot mat weighs as much as 100 pounds. In addition to durability the weight helps reduce (but not eliminate) creep and curl. Some owners prefer interlocking mats, especially when they're addressing stalls with sand or clay floors. Good-quality mats generally are long-lived, but they can still wear prematurely if the horse has studded shoes.
Some lightweight mats are available, but these tend to curl and wear prematurely. This can be a serious problem if bedding gets under the curled edge of the mat, creating a hazard to your horse.
If your stall walls are constructed of an unforgiving material such as concrete block, you might consider installing wall mats, as a solid kick from a horse could cause a career-ending injury. Generally wall mats are similar in material to solid floor mats although often without a textured surface, and they should be made of a material that will not stretch due to their own weight or being rubbed by the horse. Stall pads, similar in construction to gym wall pads, are also available. Check and reinforce the fasteners of either type frequently, especially along the top to prevent sagging or bulging and debris accumulation. It isn't recommended that you apply wall mats on wood walls because moisture can remain trapped behind the mats long enough to create unhealthy respiratory conditions and cause the wood to rot.
Types of Bedding
Bedding material choices might depend on availability of products in your area, as many bedding options consist of material generated by a manufacturing process. For instance, pine shavings in the central Midwestern United States might come from window and trim manufacturers. Sawdust could be available from sawmills or shredded wafer board from car seat manufacturers. Straw is a popular medium with many large horse operations; others buy sawdust by the dump truck load from local sawmills. Some local feed stores stock bagged pine shavings--the ideal and probably most expensive bedding material--and offer free delivery if bought in bulk. Experienced horse owners in your area will have explored these options and could be valuable resources.
Basic criteria for quality bedding are:
1. High absorption rate. The material should absorb and retain moisture so it can be removed from the stall easily.
2. Low dust. Many otherwise promising materials are dusty, which can cause respiratory irritation and potentially disease. Shredded waferboard generally falls in the low-dust category.
3. Nontoxic. Some products are unsuitable due to their composition (e.g., black walnut shavings, which can cause laminitis).
4. Compostability. In today's green world, horse owners must consider waste generation. Increasingly, regulatory agencies at the federal, state, and local levels are placing restrictions on farm waste disposal. Excessive nitrate levels as well as high bacteria counts in local watersheds, caused by livestock waste and excessive use of agricultural and lawn fertilizers, have become problems in most communities. Develop a management plan that allows for composting and reuse of the material on your farm, or have it hauled to a large composting operation.
5. Storage capability. Do you have an area that can be dedicated to holding truckloads of bulk material? Do you have equipment to move and distribute it?
6. Economics. Who wants to spend a major portion of their horse care budget on bedding? Buying in bulk generally saves money if you have the equipment or means to have it hauled to your barn.
Every bedding material is a compromise of the six abovementioned criteria. Each horse care manager must balance his or her priorities/needs with the products available and choose accordingly.