Bedding Down For Health and Happiness
by Aubrey Moore
Successful stable management involves more than just keeping horses fed and watered; it also means keeping horses healthy and happy. A crucial part of that is using quality, clean bedding in your stalls. You may be tempted to keep using whatever material you're familiar with (or whatever is cheapest), but consider whether it's actually working for you. Keep reading to see what we look for in our bedding and hear all about our favorite options.
What should I look for when I select bedding?
There are a few essential points you want to keep in mind when you shop for bedding. While cost may be a prime factor, you also want to take horse health into consideration, as well as your farm's system of horse manure management. Here's what we look at when we purchase bedding for our own horses:
Absorbency: Bedding should easily absorb urine or be paired with another material that does so that liquids do not pool in the stall or around horse hooves and legs.
Dustiness: Dusty bedding not only clings to everything (on horses and humans alike!), but horses can breathe in dust or get it in their eyes or wounds. How dusty a material is should be a significant factor when you're trying to avoid horse health problems.
Ease of Use: Some beddings are easier to transport than others. If you have paved walkways, a wheelbarrow full of bulk shavings might be easy to distribute to stalls, but a bagged option might be more efficient if you're headed to a run-in in the middle of a pasture.
Disposal Method: Anyone with a horse knows that the manure never stops, and neither does cleaning stalls! Some bedding may need to be disposed of in a bulk container, while others may be easily composted on the farm (if you have the space). Depending on your stable management requirements, how you get rid of your bedding may be just as important as the bedding that you get.
Cost and Availability: You'll also want to consider how easy it is to find and purchase your potential bedding. Pine shavings are typically available at any farm supply store, but paper or woodchip options may also be available if there is a lumber mill nearby. You may also consider getting bedding delivered in bulk to save yourself the time and energy running out to a supplier.
There may be more personal considerations for your barn in particular, but overall, you want to select a bedding that helps contain waste and is both inviting and comfortable for horses to bed down in. We've listed some of our favorite options below.
What material can I use for bedding?
Traditional Shavings: Typically made of pine, shavings are a tried-and-true staple of most barns. Shavings are easy to find and easy to transport (and can often be delivered). They are a reasonably absorbent, soft bedding option for your horses. However, they can also be dusty, and, depending on the type of wood they come from, they can be drying to hooves (or even cause allergic reactions if cedar is used). Overall, they're a good option if you're looking for an all-around bedding option.
Sawdust: While sawdust is one of the more absorbent bedding options out there, it also comes with a few serious horse health cons. First, it is often extremely dusty. Second, you'll need to be careful that there's no possibility of the sawdust containing black walnut, which is known to cause laminitis in horses. It can also be challenging to transport, as it's often purchased independently through lumber mills.
Pellets: Growing in popularity the last few years, pellets hit a lot of the wickets to look for in a bedding. Available at many farm supply stores, pellets have little dust and can save you serious time during your daily mucking out. As pelleted bedding becomes wet, it breaks down and expands, mixing in with the remainder of the bedding. Some people even slightly moisten the bedding initially to create a softer surface for horses to lie on. The downside? It can be difficult to get pelleted bedding deep enough to really cushion a stall, so you may need to layer them on top of stall mats. One last point: If you're tempted to save money and use pellets designed for stove use, you may want to think twice. These products often contain additional chemicals or may be processed in the same facilities as black walnut.
Straw: Popular in Europe, there is something exceptionally cozy about a deeply bedded straw stall, and some people believe that horses are more inclined to lay down in this material. It's often used for foaling stalls in particular, as it doesn't stick to the wet coat of a foal like other types of bedding may. However, horses may try to eat it, and it can be very dusty, depending on where you source it. It also has some of the same issues as regular hay in that it can mold and it may require a large storage area. It is also non-absorbent, and urine may pool underneath it and be difficult to clean out of a stall.
Nut or Grain Husks/Hulls: Peanut hulls are common in the southern regions of the US, and rice hulls may be available in other areas, but husks and hulls are still a less common option for bedding, especially in the stable management of larger barns. Husks and hulls come in varying absorbency and dustiness and are often not available in bulk, frequently coming in smaller bagged amounts. The individual bedding qualities may depend on the original material, but coconut husks have recently increased in popularity as a healthy, easy-to-use choice.
Peat Moss: If you're looking for a bedding that requires less material and is easy to dispose of, peat moss can't be beaten. Moss creates a lovely soft base that many claim helps cushion horse joints. Unfortunately, this bedding doesn't come cheap, although after initially building up the layers, you'll only need to add a bale a week. It's also a very dark material that can affect the stall's overall look and will need to be purchased from garden centers rather than farm supply stores. Finally, although the material is easily compostable, it is not considered a sustainable material, as it is harvested from the top layer of peat bogs.
Hemp: Absorbent, dust-free, and easily compostable, hemp combines many of the best parts of pellets and peat moss, but without the environmental concerns (or the dark, mossy look). Like pellets, when hemp becomes wet, it can be mixed in with the rest of the bedding, saving time during mucking out. The greatest issue with hemp lies with its availability; the ability to source the material varies wildly from location to location.
Shredded Paper or Cardboard: Shredded paper material might be the least convenient of these options. While it is highly absorbent, the material also becomes heavy with moisture and can be difficult to transport into or out of stalls. It also can be hard to find unless there is a paper mill nearby. Finally, if you have lighter horses in your barn, ink may transfer to their hair, making it difficult to keep their coats clean. Shredded paper may be a cheaper option, but it may not be the best option for you in terms of stable management effort.
With the knowledge of what separates good bedding from great, you can now easily choose what will work best for you and your horses.
About Aubrey Moore:
Over the years, Aubrey has dabbled in a variety of equestrian activities such as eventing, dressage, Pony Club, and one epic safari ride across Africa. When she isn’t busy freelance writing for such publications as Horse Network, she can be found at home with her pony Khali and pony-sized cat, Frankie.