Under Foot

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You’ve likely seen those television commercials for mattresses that remind us that “we spend one third of our lives in bed.” Similarly, your horse may spend as much as 95 percent of his time in his stall, especially if turnout is relegated to a few minutes a day per boarding resident. As a result, your horse’s stall floor affects the comfort of his feet and legs as much as your mattress determines the comfort of your back.

Considering a change in stall flooring? There’s no ideal floor, but there are some appealing options. Here’s what you need to know.

His House and Home

A horse that spends his days in a pasture is almost maintenance-free. Horses in stalls, on the other hand, “require much greater care, attention and labor,” according to Kathy Anderson, PhD and extension horse specialist at the University of Nebraska. It’s not just about feet, either. She reminds us that “materials used for stall floors can greatly influence air quality, ease of stall maintenance and manure removal.” And air quality isn’t something to sneeze at, since “adequate ventilation reduces the presence of air contaminants such as dust, molds and irritating gases from decomposing manure,” Anderson says.

Another expert is Eileen Wheeler, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Pennsylvania State University, who

co-wrote wrote the highly comprehensive “Horse Stable Flooring Materials and Drainage” with senior research technologist Jennifer Smith. In general, says Wheeler, “a properly constructed floor has layers of materials that provide suitable support, drainage and structural integrity for the top surface layer.”

Wheeler notes that there are two major categories of stable flooring materials, those that are porous and those that are not. Good porous floors, she says, have an underlying foundation of sand and/or gravel that encourages water movement down into the ground below the stable. Impervious floors, properly installed, are sloped toward a drain so urine and water run out of the stall. In either case, bedding should absorb urine and other liquids before they reach the flooring; aside from moisture after a good hosing, there should be minimal drainage of other liquids.

Wheeler’s list of desirable characteristics for flooring reads like this: 1) Easy on legs and “gives” to decrease strain on tendons and feet; 2) dry; 3) non-odor retentive; 4) provides traction—non slippery, encourages horse to lie down; 5) durable—stays level, resists damage from pawing; 6) low maintenance; 7) easy to clean; and 8) affordable.

Given the intense use of the stall’s floor space, no single flooring meets all these requirements. So how do you choose?

Cleanability is key. Wheeler calculates that a 1,000-pound horse produces approximately 31 pounds of feces and 2.4 gallons of urine daily. For good drainage after a thorough hosing, Wheeler says, “a water flow path is provided either along the floor surface or through the floor to sub-layers that allow the fluid to move away from the stable or barn.”

Avoiding odor retention is also important. Floors that allow urine to be absorbed and travel through the flooring will retain odors, so stalls with porous flooring must be well-bedded, with soiled bedding replaced in timely fashion. Impervious floors depend on slope for drainage and/or bedding to soak up urine.

Urine removal is a health issue, not simply an olfactory one. “Stall floors that retain odors can deteriorate the equine respiratory system,” Wheeler warns. “Since horses spend a good deal of time with their heads down, high ammonia concentrations at the floor level can damage the lining of the throat and lungs. A good floor can inhibit the survivability of internal parasites in the stall environment.”

Two other important points to keep top of mind: Forgiving floors contribute to leg soundness, and good traction gives the horse confidence to lie down and get up.

Prices generally fall into three categories: 1) Least expensive—topsoil, clay, road base mix; 2) medium price—sand, concrete, asphalt; and 3) high end—solid rubber mats, grid mats and wood. We’ll discuss these types and their pros and cons next.

Porous Flooring Choices

The most common porous flooring material is topsoil. Wheeler likens it to pasture footing, with “natural” characteristics. It’s highly absorbent, non-slip, easy on legs, inexpensive and has variable drainage. But its porosity can retain dampness and odor, it needs to be leveled and replaced often, can be tough to muck, may freeze hard and is difficult to disinfect. For these reasons Anderson suggests that “topsoil should be removed before starting to build the stall floors to minimize settling.”

Clay is very popular, she notes, but is relatively high maintenance and can become slippery when wet. Maintaining level floors is challenging, since when horses urinate, holes and pockets form, making cleaning difficult and resulting in odors. Both Wheeler and Anderson advocate mixing 2/3 clay with 1/3 sand, allowing for better drainage and less prevalent odor. You’re advised, says Anderson, to mix well, level and pack before putting a horse in the stall with this mixture.

Sand, says Wheeler, is forgiving, soft, quiet, and has excellent drainage; however pure sand does not compact and will move easily, creating tracks and pockets with repeated use that need to be smoothed out daily. It can dry hooves, resulting in cracks and splits; it mixes with bedding, so is harder to clean; and can lead to sand colic in horses that eat it. Anderson suggests it as “an underlayer for other flooring materials.”

Another option:?Road base mix. Also known as limestone dust, washed sand, quarry waste and stone dust, road base mix is usually decomposed granite mixed with a small amount of clay or other binding material, says Wheeler. “Road mixes with the fewest and smallest rocks are recommended,” she says.

Anderson suggests watering and packing road base flooring before use, and ensuring a level, hard surface. “When properly installed, this flooring can be nearly as hard as concrete floors,” she notes, “therefore adequate bedding is essential to provide sufficient cushioning for horses. Limestone needs to be 4 to 5 inches thick and placed over a base of 6 to 8 inches of sand or a material which allows for good drainage.”

Wheeler reminds us that wood is still an option, providing “a low maintenance, level floor that aids in stall mucking. Planks should be at least two-inch-thick hardwood with preservative treatment.” Pack gaps—for urine drainage, and to keep out spilled grain and the insects and rodents it attracts—with sand, road base mix or clay. “A wood floor helps alleviate stiffness by insulating the horse from the cold ground. It may, however, become slick with wetness and is difficult to disinfect due to its porous nature,” Wheeler says.

A less common option is a grid mat, says Wheeler, designed to support another type of flooring, and made from rubber or plastic. “The mat is placed over a compacted, level, sub-floor and topped with another flooring material such as clay, soil or road base mix. The open spaces aid in drainage, and the matrix prevents holes and damage from pawing.”

Impervious Flooring Options

The most typical impervious material, concrete, has several advantages:?longevity, easy cleaning, resistance to rodents, low maintenance and relatively low cost. Anderson adds that “drainage is nearly nonexistent, and more bedding, and perhaps thick rubber matting, is necessary to avoid odor and traction problems.” Most experts agree that a horse living on concrete should be turned out at least four hours a day. After all, that’s one hard floor.

Asphalt, says Wheeler, has “a bit more forgiveness” to legs and feet. It’s a mixture of aggregate stone and sand, bound with a tar compound. It’s long-wearing, provides traction, is less expensive than concrete to lay and is easy to clean. Note: Surface irregularities can trap urine and create sanitation problems.

Solid rubber mats usually cover other flooring, such as road base mix or concrete. They can be used alone, without bedding on top, but won’t be as comfortable. They clean easily and are comfortable for the horse; but cost is a factor, they can move unless well secured, and they may retain odor, Wheeler says. They’re also heavy: A 4-foot by 6-foot mat weighs about 100 pounds. On the plus side: Mats also come with warranties. Safety-wise, make sure mats fit tightly to stall walls, counsels Anderson.

The floor is more than the top surface on which the horse stands. Assess the benefits and disadvantages of each, consider availability of local materials, and analyze your budget. Whatever your choice, we’ve come a long way from “just dirt;” you can identify the right choice for your for horses’ comfort and your own comfort-level of maintenance and price.