Reducing bedding use is a smart management technique for horse properties of any size. I advocate considering this strategy for many reasons, including:
- Using less bedding improves chore efficiency because you won’t have to hunt for manure in big piles of shavings while sifting through what’s clean and what’s not.
- Reducing bedding saves money. It also means you need less space to store purchased bedding and spend less time transporting, unloading, and stacking it in your barn (or arranging for deliveries). Certain types of bedding are attractive to nesting rodents, so limiting the amount of bedding you need to store can also help prevent rodent infestations.
- Less bedding means less stall waste in your manure management program. Bedding can contribute a significant volume of material you must either compost and use on your property or haul off—which requires time and money commitments.
- If you compost, decreasing the amount of bedding in your stall waste improves the finished compost product. Bedding is all carbon, but the manure produced by horses already has the perfect carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Adding more bedding to the mix slows down the decomposition process. Good compost is useful as a soil amendment for your pastures, lawns, or gardens, whereas composted stall waste that’s high in bedding will end up more like mulch, a woody product that’s not going to add much in terms of nutrients to your pasture (and can even rob soils of valuable nitrogen).
- Most bedding products are made from lumber, so reducing bedding lessens our impact on the planet by decreasing our consumption of trees and manufactured products. It can also help cut down on plastic waste by limiting the need for packaging.
An important consideration is not reducing bedding at the expense of your horse’s health. The key to decreasing bedding use is to start with rubber stall mats. Stall mats provide a level surface that cushions a horse’s joints and soft tissues, which is healthier for them than standing on hard or uneven surfaces. Plus, stall mats offer a flat surface that allows you to easily scoop out manure and soiled bedding
, and leave clean bedding behind.
Once you have stall mats, you can think of bedding as a medium to absorb urine and moisture. You can spread your bedding in a light layer, like a litter, or only in potty spots. This will help minimize both bedding used and the amount of stall waste left to discard. If your horse has 24-hour access to a paddock and his stall is primarily used for feeding and protection from the weather, he might not need any bedding at all.
To Bank or Not to Bank?
Many equestrians favor building a bank of bedding around the edges of the stall floor to prevent horses from getting cast, which is when they lay down or roll up against a wall or corner and can’t get up. The sense of panic this creates can cause horses to thrash around and injure themselves. If a horse remains in this position for too long, it can also cause suffocation.
Many horse owners believe creating a bank of bedding can reduce a horse’s risk of getting cast because, in theory, it encourages horses to lay in the middle of the stall and prevents them from trapping their legs against the wall of the barn. However, there is little evidence banked bedding reduces casting, and it can even make the situation worse. If a horse does manage to push himself away from the wall, the bank can keep his legs at an angle that makes it impossible for him to get back on his feet. Typically, banks are only effective if they are very high and very wide.
Banked bedding also provides the perfect place for fungi to grow in undisturbed areas. Fungi release spores into the air, which can cause airway inflammation when breathed in by the horse (or human). If you do bank your bedding, it is important to keep it fresh to ward off fungal growth.
If your horse loves to roll in his stall, you might want to consider something other than bedding banks to help prevent him from getting cast. For example, you can line stall walls with stall mats, much like the inside of a horse trailer, which offers cushioning and grip for flailing feet. There are also a variety of anti-cast items on the market, such as wooden or rubber trims or strips, that you affix to walls to provide traction. These are intended to be used in place of bedding banks. The advantages reduced bedding provides horse owners considerably outweigh the advantages of bedding. Reducing bedding means less stall waste, reduced costs, increased chore efficiency, and improved horse health