Like humans, horses prefer to dwell in comfort. When at rest, the horse seeks a soothing environment--protected from the elements and predators, easy on his feet, and soft against his body. The domesticated horse must live in the enclosure that you provide. If you choose to house your horse in a building, you face the challenge of furnishing him with a bed that is comfortable for standing and lying down, as well as taking in health considerations.
A stall, though convenient as an enclosure, does present both horse and horsekeeper with a problem--the horse uses this limited single room for resting, sleeping, and elimination. The more time the horse spends in his stall, the more waste products he deposits on its ground. To maintain your horse's well-being inside the stall, you must supply safe, healthful housing.
First the Floor
Bedding and flooring work together. Whatever the hard surface of the floor, the bedding is a softer layer of material that covers it. The foundation of the stall, the floor, remains in place. Bedding is a temporary, artificial tier that you add over the floor, and replace on a regular basis.
A bare floor can be dirt, ground-up rock such as sand or decomposed granite or limestone, wood, brick, or concrete. The floor needs to be level and provide for some type of drainage.
A dirt floor will absorb moisture. Dirt needs to dry out, as urine-soaked dirt (or nearly any other material) will hold the smell of ammonia.
If your stall has a dirt floor, you might choose to pave it with rubber mats. Mats, made of rubber three-quarters of an inch thick, prevent urine from soaking into the floor. They can also be installed over a cement floor.
Mats make a stall easy to clean. They keep the floor level, since holes can't form from wet spots or the horse pawing. However, mats can be slippery, and the seams should be flush to prevent gaps between the mats.
Placed on top of the stall floor, bedding functions in several ways to keep your horse healthy. First, it provides the cushion that the horse seeks while at rest. Layered over a firm foundation, it is comfortable to stand on.
Bedding also acts as a mattress, a surface that encourages the stalled horse to lie down and relieve the constant pressure of his body weight on legs and feet. Lying on a softer surface reduces friction when the horse lies down and gets up. Such friction rubs tissues against bone and causes abrasions on the hocks or elbows.
Also, when the horse repeatedly stamps his feet, his legs absorb the shock of the movement. A horse will be more likely to stock up if he pounds his feet against hard ground to ward off insects.
A layer of bedding also adds insulation to the stall. The temperature of a cold floor, significantly lower than the horse's body, can chill the horse by conducting his heat away from him. Deep bedding increases the insulation, as air pockets act as barriers between the cold ground and the horse.
Making your bed thicker on the sides of the stall helps protect against drafts in cold weather. It also acts as padding, to aid the horse in rising to his feet if he rolls against the wall.
Bedding absorbs urine, and you can promote a healthier environment by routinely removing the soaked bedding. You want the cushion to be dry rather than wet for the soundness of the horse's feet. Ammonia attacks the horn of the hoof, and ammonia-soaked material can pack against the sole and frog, causing thrush.
Bedding also absorbs gases, such as ammonia, and it can aid in reducing bacteria growth on a stall floor when removed promptly. The bacteria are produced by the decomposition of waste products and soiled organic bedding.
Look for bedding that is safe for the horse to breathe or eat. Some types add to the dust in the air, and individual horses can be allergic to certain types of bedding made from plant products. If you're bedding a foaling stall, choose straw or another product of a shape that won't interfere with the foal's first breaths. A newly born foal can easily inhale wood shavings, which adhere to his wet muzzle.
Finally, bedding keeps the horse clean. A layer of deep bedding shields the horse from dust and dirt on the stall floor.
Sifting Through Materials
Like footing, the surface of a stall floor can be of organic, plant substances, or manufactured materials. Either natural or manmade bedding falls into two basic types, those that allow drainage and those that are absorbent.
If you follow tradition, you'd first consider straw bedding. These stalks can be of wheat, barley, or oat, with wheat the preferred choice. Wheat tends to resist liquid absorption, and it's less tasty to the horse who munches on straw.
Straw promotes drainage, and urine soaks through the stems to accumulate on the stall floor. You'll want to bed deep, to build a level of matter that shields the horse from any liquid below.
A stall deeply bedded with straw presents an attractive picture. If you shake out a section of a bale of straw, then toss a clump with your stable fork, the stalks fall in a criss-cross pattern. The layers of long stems form air pockets, which results in a soft bed that encourages the horse to lie down.
Straw does demand more work than shavings, and mucking out a straw-bedded stall is an art. You use your fork to shake out the straw so the clean, dry stalks remain on the top layer, while you can separate wet straw and remove it.
In some stables in cold climates, grooms build a deep litter bed. Instead of removing straw, they build up the layers to generate warmth. Here the bed starts at 10 inches deep, and the groom lets the straw pile up. As matter decomposes in the layers, rot on bottom layers sends warmth upward. The air pockets between the stems hold the warm air. (Smell might be a deterrent to some who would choose this method.)
Wood shavings are a popular alternative to straw. This material is more absorbent, with the wood material soaking up urine. You dig out wet clumps with a bedding of shavings, instead of sifting dry from soiled with straw. Some horse owners feel it is more convenient to remove a single large clump of shavings, although the pile of wet shavings weighs considerably more than the same fork-full of wet straw.
No matter how carefully you sift, you will have wasted product. Shavings will stick to manure, so you slide a manure rake under manure and gently shake any shavings free. The curly shavings that look so appealing as a bed typically don't absorb as efficiently as denser products. Shavings are a good match for rubber mats.
Shavings will compress and pack under the horse's weight, so use sufficient bedding to compensate. One barn manager recommended bedding a stall at least a foot deep. "Put three or four bags in a stall. Many people dump one bag in and wonder why dirt gets mixed in--the horse walks right through it. With straw, use almost a bale, shaken loose with a pitchfork. Kick about a third of the bedding up against the wall, where you keep it clean and you can pull it down as you need it."
Pine shavings are the most popular, although your area might offer shavings of other woods such as oak. Be sure to avoid shavings that contain any black walnut, which is toxic to horses.
Shavings should be from kiln-dried wood, not green wood. You can buy shavings in individual bales, compressed and packed into plastic bags, or by the truckload if you're bedding a barnful of stalls. Shavings will vary in shape, from very curly to somewhat flat. They should form individual flakes, as shavings are not as granular as sawdust. (You will find that shavings do contain a dust residue.) Be warned: Some horses are allergic to shavings.
You sometimes can purchase bedding that blends wood products. For example, KJ Ranch, Inc., of Phoenix, Ariz., markets a mixture of shavings and grindings. The grindings are small wood chips, produced from scrap wood in the sawmill.
"The grindings in our product have a lot of moisture content," explained KJ's Elizabeth Anderson. "When they're mixed with drier shavings, they soak up the wood dust and remove it. They sit at the bottom of the stall floor, and mixed with shavings, add buoyancy to your stall. You get the fresh smell and the fluffy nature of shavings, yet you have less dust."
Another wood product is a cedar fiber bedding, marketed as CedaRest, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. This product is designed for use in outdoor pens or corrals, as a layer on top of dirt or sand. For a horse kept outdoors, the material is supposed to help prevent sand colic.
CedaRest's Steve Rauch explained, "Cedar is heavy and dense, and it doesn't blow away. It doesn't rot when it's wet, where pine will break down. The urine leaches into the ground."
In a barn with attached outside pens, he recommends using this product first as an outside bedding. Horses will learn to urinate outside, he said, then the cedar can also be used inside, if desired.
Recyclers have experimented with shredded newspaper, sold in bales. One bale will bed a stall. You probably wouldn't want to recycle your own papers, as you'd need a sturdy shredder and only paper printed with vegetable inks, like soy. (Other inks can be toxic or trigger allergic reactions.) Paper can create a dust problem, however.
Anderson mentioned a recycled newsprint derivative, Fibrsorb. "It's shredded and cleaned to wash the ink and chemicals out of the product. As a processed product, you eliminate bacteria, chemicals, insects, and waste. It's a lot more absorbent and lasts a lot longer than shavings. It's extremely heavy and won't blow around."
She compared the density of this paper bedding with shavings, noting that a truckload of shavings yields 110 cubic yards, where the same delivery of Fibrsorb packs 70 cubic yards into 25 tons. "With this, you don't pay for the air. Paper clumps up and becomes dense when it gets wet."
Your region might offer other types of bedding, such as rice hulls or peanut hulls. Also, you might experiment with mixing materials, such as blending ground-up corncobs with shavings. Like the mixture of shavings and grindings, the heavier material will sift to the floor, while the shavings remain on the surface.
When you choose bedding, you'll weigh the benefits of material, performance, and cost. Clean bedding makes a barn smell fresh. Clean shavings in a stall smell homey, while straw has a different odor. About cedar, Rauch said, "It makes the whole barn smell like a hamster cage. It tends to cut down on the odor of the manure, and there's less decomposing material than with pine shavings."
Wet bedding reeks of ammonia, which induces more effects than an obnoxious smell. This gas can impact your horse's health by lowering his immune systems and affecting his respiratory system. Besides removing wet bedding, you can reduce odor by treating wet spots. Hydrated lime will soak up the wetness and mask the odor, but this caustic substance can dry hooves and irritate eyes and nostrils.
An alternative to lime is a granulated mineral, Sweet PDZ. This product is made of zeolite, of a family of hydrous aluminum silicate minerals. "It acts to produce an ion exchange with gaseous products," explained Ann Overholser of Steelhead Specialty Minerals, Inc., of Spokane, Wash. "Zeolite traps ammonia, so it completely eliminates the gas. It lets nitrates out slowly in the soil."
This natural product is non-toxic and non-hazardous to animals. Overholser added that it also dries wet spots, which discourages flies from hanging around the stall. Flies are attracted to decomposing waste. Less odor can mean fewer flies in your barn.
Flammability is a concern for every horse owner. You must also plan where to store bedding, especially the more flammable straw, and plan for the logistics of moving the matter in and out of the stalls.
Wet bedding weighs substantially more than dry, so transporting it from the stall to the disposal site must be considered. Consider how you'll discard used bedding. Some types are more environmentally correct, as they decompose faster. The paper Fibrsorb almost completely disintegrates in six months. Shavings and straw take longer to deteriorate into compost.
Whatever bedding you choose, measure the health benefits of the environment you provide with management and cost. Keep your horse cozy and dry, so he's satisfied to settle in a stall that doesn't compromise his health.
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: Horse Bedding Choices