Not every horse is the same, and not every farm or stable is the same. How you pick the bedding you use often is based on owner or manager preferences, what is available in your area, and the needs of your horses and clients.
No matter what kind of bedding you choose, it has to keep your horses comfortable, dry, safe and healthy. After that, most of the considerations depend on you. Think about the following:
Availability This is the biggest determinant of your bedding choice; after all, if the bedding is not available in your area, or is too costly to ship to you, it won’t be a practical solution.
Consistency Is the quality consistent? Shavings, for instance, can vary widely from large and fluffy to small and almost sawdust-like.
Ease of Use Does the bedding make it easy or difficult to clean the stalls? Is there a learning curve associated with using the bedding? How easy is it to transport the soiled bedding to your manure pile? Does this bedding require you to do or purchase anything special or extra to use it?
Time on Bedding How long will your horses be on the bedding? If your horses are out eight or more hours a day, the bedding will be used far less than if horses are out for only one or two hours a day. Also, consider your horses. Are most of them messy or tidy? Do they drink and urinate an average amount, or a lot?
Volume How much bedding do you need? If you want stalls to be deeply bedded in shavings and banked high in the corners, you will need more bedding than someone who provides just enough to absorb urine and manure.
Robert Coleman, PhD, Equine Extension Professor at the University of Kentucky, advises moderation. “You need enough bedding to be absorbent while allowing the horse to stand comfortably, because they spend more time standing than lying down,” he said. “Horses standing outside don’t usually choose deep footing. And remember, the more you put in the stall, the more you have to take out.”
Also consider that the greater the volume of material, the greater the potential for exposure to dust and/or molds, depending on the type of bedding you choose.
On the other hand, not using enough bedding can create health problems for your horses. Ron Gaeta, DVM, of Dunbarton Equine in Connecticut, puts it very bluntly: “If you can smell ammonia in the barn, you have already hurt your horses’ lungs.”
One of the biggest problems he sees is insufficient bedding in the stall, or stalls that are not properly or thoroughly cleaned. “You have to be scrupulous about getting rid of the wet bedding,” he emphasized.
Dust How dusty is the bedding? This is a major concern if you have horses with respiratory issues or allergies, or human customers who have asthma.
Storage Do you plan to buy and store the bedding in bulk, or do you need to store bags or bales of bedding? Will you be storing bedding in or outside the barn? Some insurance companies offer incentives, such as discounts or improved service, for stable owners who store their bedding away from the barn.
Disposal How much room does the soiled bedding use on your property? Do you need to dumpster the manure? (Some town ordinances require this.) What are the costs associated with manure removal? Do you want to sell the manure to nurseries or mushroom farmers? If so, check in advance to determine the type of waste they will take.
If you are planning to compost the soiled bedding, consider the system you will be using. “Some composting systems don’t work well with the long fibers of straw,” says Coleman. “When composting, you also have to consider the critical mass of waste needed to generate the heat needed to decompose the contents. If you are using bedding like sawdust or wood pellets, it can take a lot more time and material to reach that critical mass than if you are using a bulkier bedding, like shavings or straw.”
Check the pH of the material—shavings, for instance, tend to be acidic. Decomposition time also varies with beddings. Shavings can take several years to break down, while peat moss is already decomposed.
Cost What are the initial and long-term costs of the bedding? If the bedding accumulates to form huge manure piles, for instance, the cost of removing the pile can be significant. Does the bedding cost more up front, but eventually cost less over time? Do you need to purchase special equipment to handle the bedding, or construct a shed or pit to store it? Does the bedding take more time to manage? All of these increase your costs.
Allergies, Molds, Toxins (equine and human) Is the bedding safe and free of toxins?
Stall Surface The surface of the stall can affect the absorptive qualities of your bedding. A stone dust floor will drain better than a cement or rubber-matted floor. Do your stalls have mattresses on the bottom? A common tendency is to bed less on stalls that are covered with mattresses. However, this can lead to ammonia buildup.
Expectations If you have boarders, you might need to consider their expectations and/or the aesthetics of your bedding. The black dust or dark appearance of peat moss, for instance, might be unappealing to some.
Common Types of Bedding
Shavings and Sawdust
Shavings, the fragrant staple of many barns, are readily available, smell great, and have a light, warm color that brightens the barn interior. Manure and urine spots are easy to see, and no special equipment is required to clean the stall. Shavings can vary in quality, from large, fluffy shavings to finer, smaller shavings that are almost like sawdust. Their ability to absorb can also be variable; kiln-dried bagged shavings are drier and absorb better than heavier, chip-like shavings. Shavings have become more expensive with the downturn in the construction industry, but that should improve when the supply becomes more plentiful. Shavings are available in paper or plastic bags for easy storage.
Sawdust is inexpensive and readily available, especially in areas with a large lumber industry. If purchasing the sawdust in bulk, you will need a suitable, covered storage place to keep the material dry, out of the wind, and free of mold. Also consider the additional time and labor involved in putting sawdust into your storage and moving it to your stalls.
Dust is an issue with shavings and even more so with sawdust, especially when these materials are purchased in bulk. Pine and fir create the least dust.
Another issue with shavings and sawdust is the potential of toxicity. Black walnut, for example, is toxic to horses. Coleman recommends a zero tolerance policy. “Yes, you can read that it’s okay to have 10-20% of your shavings be black walnut, but what happens if that 10-20% is all clumped together rather than dispersed throughout the load?” he asked.
Cedar is another poor choice for horses, as the aromatic oils can be irritating to skin, and some horses are allergic to cedar. Check with your supplier to make sure your shavings do not contain cedar, black walnut or other toxins.
Pellets made of kiln-dried wood and sawdust are a relatively new bedding option. The pellets expand into sawdust when they get broken down by the horse’s hooves and exposed to moisture. Pellets absorb a lot of moisture and are purported to be less dusty than shavings or sawdust. However, this may depend on climate and usage, as well as the product brand. In stalls that are seldom used, or in cold climates where the air is very dry or pellets cannot be misted without freezing, dust may still be an issue. On the plus side, pellets are available in bags that are about a third the size of a shavings bag, so storage is easy.
Stalls bedded with wood pellets are cleaned differently than stalls bedded with traditional materials. The manure and sopping wet portions are picked out. The damp portions are mixed with the remaining dry bedding until everything is homogeneous. New bedding is added as needed. The new pellets can be sprayed with water to fluff them up, or simply mixed in with the old bedding and left to absorb moisture on their own.
Because so little bedding is removed during cleaning, the manure pile accumulates less rapidly than with shavings. Some brands of pellets contain products to help absorb ammonia and release nitrogen back into the soil during composting. Pellets are compost-friendly because the small amount of wood products they contain break down quickly and create a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that favors release of nutrients from the manure into the soil.
However, the general availability of pellets varies with manufacturing and distribution. This can affect the price, depending on shipping distance to you. Another caution: Avoid wood pellets that are used in stoves as they can contain toxins or chemicals. Always use a brand specifically made for horse bedding.
Straw is an inexpensive, readily available bedding choice. Good-quality straw is less dusty—but is also less absorbent—than shavings or sawdust. If the stall is bedded properly, the straw can form a comfortable mat barrier between manure and urine, which settles to the bottom of the stall.
To achieve this mat effect, the straw needs to be bedded deeply. Gaeta commented, “I find that straw is a terrific alternative for horses with allergies—it’s clean, and if the stall is properly maintained, there won’t be an ammonia smell in the barn.”
Some horses like to eat straw; choosing a less tempting type of straw can reduce this. “Common types of straw are wheat, oat and barley,” said Jenny Hoover, assistant trainer at Connecticut’s Mead Farm and a British Horse Society graduate. "Wheat is the most common, while oat and barley are the types that horses find especially tasty. Barley straw can cause colic if your horse over-indulges."
Gaeta added, “Good-quality wheat straw is clean and is totally digestible, so I don’t worry about the horses eating a little bit of it.”
Mature grass hay is an alternative to straw that horses can eat with less risk of colic. Coleman explains, “In Kentucky, a lot of farms sell mature grass hay as bedding. The horses eat a little of it, but it doesn’t cause the kind of impaction problems we see with straw. Now, if you have broodmares, you have to be careful that the hay doesn’t contain fescue. But other than that, it is a consideration depending on availability.”
Straw requires considerable storage space to accommodate the large bales. Also, you’ll need to check for mold. If you do spot any, it is easy enough to discard. Straw composts easily and is the preferred material of mushroom growers.
Peat is a widely available material that is less mainstream, but as time-honored as shavings and straw. A solid bed of peat in the stall gives a springy feel that is much like a mattress. “My horses love it,” said Eamonn Gillespie, a farrier based in Oxford, Connecticut. “And it’s very easy to clean.”
Jessica Reilly, co-owner and trainer at Friendship Farm in New York, agreed and added, “When my horses come in after being out all day, they all go down for a nap.”
Gillespie and Reilly both feel that their horses have fewer joint problems because of the natural cushioning that peat provides. Noted Reilly, “I’ve also noticed that I’ve never had a horse get cast in these stalls. I think it’s because they have a good base of support on the peat. They don’t slip around like they would with shavings or straw.” (See “Friendship Farm: The Perfect Stall,” below.)
It takes about eight or nine bales of peat to give a good base to an average (10 x 10 or 12 x 12) stall. Once the base is established, the peat only needs to be replenished at the rate of about one bale every one to two weeks. Both Gillespie and Reilly feel that the initial cost of peat is offset by decreased cost over time. As Reilly noted, “If I were using shavings, I’d be adding about three bags per week to each stall. With the peat, it’s one bale every seven to 10 days.”
Peat is already decomposed, so composting is easy. However, because peat comes in large bales, you’ll need more storage space.
Probably the biggest drawback of peat moss is the dark dust that accompanies it. Misting helps but, as Gaeta pointed out, “The peat dust is everywhere. When a horse gets cut or injured and he’s bedded in peat moss, it’s difficult to keep the wound clean.” He also noted an increased incidence of conjunctivitis in horses bedded on peat.
A final consideration is that some boarders might not like dealing with the dust or the dark look of the stall interiors in a peat moss barn.
Other materials that might be available in your area include shredded paper, shredded cardboard, processed corn cob and kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus L), a fast-growing fibrous relative of hemp. All of these materials are dust-free, absorbent and readily degradable. Out of these options, shredded paper or cardboard is probably the most common.
Gaeta loves paper. “It is absolutely dust-free, so for horses with allergies, I think it’s a great alternative,” he said. Light-colored horses might tend to get stained with the ink, but today’s plant-based inks wash off easily and are not toxic to horses. Paper is available in bags or bales, and is easy to store. Because it can blow away easily, it is best not to use paper in outside stalls. Paper composts easily."
Finding the right bedding can be a process of trial and error. If you don’t like a particular bedding and want to try another, Coleman recommends trying one or two stalls first to see how the bedding actually works for you. With time and experimentation, you can find a bedding solution that will work well for you and be safe and comfortable for your horses.