The Bedding Debate

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Years ago, bedding choices were simple: straw or sawdust. But today there are a plethora of bedding products to pick from. Before ordering your next truckload of bedding, check out all of the options available.

For many horse lovers, there’s something about the sight and smell of a stall freshly bedded in bright yellow shavings that just makes us feel at home. However, the look of a freshly cleaned stall may be changing: many companies offer alternative bedding products along with claims of improved absorption, decreased dust and less waste.

With all the decisions facing a barn manager, which bedding to use may seem relatively minor. But as Kirsten Johnson, owner of Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center (KESMARC), points out, it is a serious decision. “Horses in stalls have no choice: proper bedding is not a option, it is the rule. Horses stay down longer and get a better quality of rest if they have a good bed.”

When considering bedding for your barn, there are several factors to ponder. The first is your horses’ needs. Those with allergies, COPD or similar problems may not be able to tolerate dusty bedding. Also consider the cost of purchasing the bedding as well as stall cleaning time. Think about how you will dispose of used bedding: some types compost more easily than others, and some kinds of bedding are difficult to spread with a manure spreader. Last, how will you store your bedding? Loose bedding and straw bales need a dry covered place, while bagged bedding may be stored outside on pallets under tarps. Finally, not all types of bedding are available in all areas, so unless you want to pay for shipping, look for products that are available locally.

Straw

Straw was once the normal bedding material for all barns and stables. At that time, it was cheap and easy to find, and was the only option available. However, straw does not absorb urine well. It generates a lot of heavy waste and creates huge compost piles that decompose slowly. Today, straw is not easy to find in many areas, so outside of Kentucky, it is rarely used except in foaling stalls. Prices range from approximately $2 per bale in areas where straw is commonly produced to $10 or more per bale in other locations.

Sawdust and Shavings

Sawdust and shavings are currently the most common bedding types. Some cabinet makers and lumber yards give away sawdust if you are willing to haul it away. Sawdust soaks up urine well and stall waste can be spread on fields or composted. However, sawdust can cause problems for horses with COPD or other breathing conditions. Additionally, sawdust sometimes contains large chunks of splintered wood or other trash that’s not healthy for your horses.

Although dusty, shavings generally aren’t as bad as sawdust. You may be able to buy them in bulk and have them delivered, or several stores sell compressed baled shavings. Like sawdust, they absorb urine well, and baled shavings are easy to haul to horse shows or clinics, so you can comfortably bed your horse even when not at home. Cost for bulk delivery varies with the amount you order and your area. Bagged shavings generally cost between $4 and $6 per bag.

Rubber Mats

Jennifer Brooks of Equine Rehabilitation Services, LLC in New Hampshire uses rubber mats on top of sand, topped with pine shavings to provide plenty of cushioning for horses at her rehabilitation center. In addition to providing added cushioning, mats also protect floors from the wear of horse hooves, especially horses who pace or paw. Another advantage is you can use less bedding with mats since the mats provide cushioning, and bedding is needed only to absorb moisture. There are many types of mats available, and prices generally start at $250 to $300 per stall. Besides rubber mats, many companies have other flooring options, from rubber pavers to interlocking systems that hold in the bedding better. And like rubber mats, these options help save on bedding and labor.

Wood Pellets

Wood pellet bedding is gaining popularity among horse owners. This bedding is made of shavings and sawdust that are processed to extract the moisture and oils. The material is then compressed into small pellets and sold in bags. Once the bedding is spread into a stall and watered with a hose, it expands into a fluffy sawdust bed. It absorbs urine well and then dries again. It produces less waste and many people find it easier to clean. This bedding also composts more quickly than shavings, sawdust or straw. The downside is that you must keep the bedding slightly damp or it generates dust. It also generally costs more, but that cost is offset, since you can use less bedding. The cost is generally between $5 and $6 per bag.

Shredded Paper and Cardboard

Although not available everywhere, bedding made of shredded paper or chopped cardboard is gaining popularity. It is lightweight and practically dust-free, making it a great choice for horses with COPD and other allergies. It also absorbs urine well and decomposes well in compost piles and as long as it contains no foreign materials, it is safe for horses. These beddings don’t work well in manure spreaders, but waste can be burned. This product often costs more than traditional bedding, but those who use it say it lasts much longer and provides a great deal of cushioning for the horses. The cost for shredded paper or chopped cardboard bedding starts around $6.50 per bag.

Peat

Although more commonly used overseas, peat bedding is another alternative stable owners may consider. Peat bedding is very absorbent and composts quickly, but it is not as attractive as shavings or straw. However, peat bedding is hard to find, and since is absorbs urine so well, it can become very heavy and make stall cleaning difficult and tiring. Costs vary depending on your location, and peat bedding is almost impossible to find in some areas.

Rice Hulls

The rice hull (also called husk) is the outer covering of a rice kernel that is removed during rice milling. Rice hulls can be used in the place of sawdust or shavings as bedding. Manufacturers claim that rice hulls are less dusty and more absorbent than shavings. Rice hulls are generally sold in bulk, and price varies by location and amount purchased.

Bedding manufacturers continually strive to create quality products for horse farms and stables. They understand that barn owners want clean products with little dust that are easy to clean and create less waste. Watch for bedding products to continue to evolve, and evaluate your operation and needs so that you can change to better products as they become available.