The type and amount of bedding you use for horses affects more than just how long it takes you to clean his stall. Bedding adds cushion to the floor of your horse’s living space, absorbs moisture, and helps control odours that could harm your horse’s respiratory health.

Bedding depth also influences resting behaviours. [1] Good bedding materials provide enough cushion for horses to lie down and are easy for care staff to keep clean.

Different materials have unique advantages and disadvantages. Selecting the best bedding for your horse will depend on budget, housing situation, health needs, and the available materials in your location.

This article will discuss the benefits of bedding and review common types of bedding materials used for horses.

Why Do Horses Need Bedding?

Investing in your horse’s stall bedding is just as important as maintaining the footing in your riding arena or pastures. Horses that live in stalls often spend more time standing on bedding than any other footing material.

Bedding sheltered areas can also benefit horses that live outside. One study found that access to large areas of soft surfaces increased lying behaviour in group living horses. [2]

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Benefits of Bedding

The primary purpose of bedding is to absorb moisture and odours from manure and urine. Horses living in confined areas must stand, lay, and eat near their waste. [3]

Regular stall cleaning and appropriate bedding limit the adverse effects of excess moisture and odour from waste on your horse’s hooves and respiratory health.

Bedding also provides a cushion between the horse and hard stall floors. A soft surface reduces fatigue on the limb and encourages resting behaviours. [2][4]

Hoof Health

Standing in moisture or manure can increase the risk of thrush.  Regularly cleaning your horse’s stall and replacing soiled bedding with clean bedding inhibits the growth of bacteria responsible for thrush and other hoof issues. [5]

Excess moisture also directly impacts hoof strength. Water can alter the structure of keratin – the main protein in the hoof wall. Water will impact the hoof’s structural integrity, stiffness, and shock-absorbing capabilities. [6]

The hoof is naturally porous and will absorb moisture from the environment. Dry, clean bedding can help dry out the foot in humid climates to prevent excess water from compromising the hoof wall. [6]

Respiratory Health

Horses excrete urea in their urine and feces. Once outside the body, urea can rapidly convert to ammonia – the chemical responsible for the intense, burning odour in dirty stalls. [3]

Ammonia irritates the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract, which can contribute to inflammatory airway disease or recurrent airway obstruction. Proper bedding helps absorb ammonia and reduces airway irritation. [7]

Certain bedding materials increase particulate matter in the air. Horses housed inside buildings without proper ventilation can develop respiratory health problems due to air contamination. [8]

Low-dust bedding materials are recommended to improve air quality in barns and reduce the risk of respiratory issues. [8]

Sleep Behavior

While horses can sleep standing up, they can only enter REM sleep while lying down. Horses that don’t spend enough time lying down for adequate REM sleep can suffer from sleep deprivation. [9]

Research suggests that bedding material and depth significantly affect the time horses spend lying down. One study found lying behaviour in horses depended on the availability of soft surfaces. [2]

Several studies report that straw bedding has the most substantial positive impact on horse sleep behaviours. [10] However, increasing the depth of any bedding material can also encourage horses to lie down more. [1]

How Much Bedding Do Horses Need?

Horses produce up to 50 pounds of manure per day. When kept in stalls, horses usually need about 8 to 15 pounds of fresh bedding per day to replace soiled material removed with waste. [11]

Depending on the stall floor and chosen material, bedding that is at least 4 inches deep should provide enough cushion for most horses. However, deeper bedding may offer more benefits if your budget and schedule allow it. [1]

Soft rubber stall mats can increase cushioning and decrease the bedding depth needed to keep horses comfortable. If your horse has rubs on his hocks or pasterns from lying down, he likely needs more bedding in his stall.

Welfare laws in some countries require owners to offer horses a minimum surface area of bedding based on their body weight.

A 12′ x 12′ stall provides adequate room for the average horse to lie down, but studies report more lying behaviour when horses have access to larger bedded areas. [2]

Evaluating Bedding Material

Selecting the best bedding material for your horses depends on several factors. These include:

Safety

Bedding should never contain foreign objects or toxic materials. For example, black walnut shavings induce laminitis when ingested or in contact with equine skin Other materials, such as cedar shavings, can cause adverse reactions in some horses. The oils in cedar can cause local reactions in the skin. [21]

Palatability

Horses are more likely to ingest certain bedding materials, such as straw bedding. This may improve certain behavioural issues by reducing boredom and encouraging foraging behaviour. However, ingestion of straw could cause digestive issues for some horses, including impaction colic. [19]

Sand is not suitable as bedding because it can lead to sand colic when ingested. [12]

Absorbency

Absorbing urine and moisture is the primary purpose of bedding. More absorbent materials will lower ammonia levels and reduce the amount of bedding used daily.

Pelleted bedding is usually the most absorbent. [13]

Compostability

Some horse owners dispose of manure by composting the final product on their property. Smaller pieces of bedding are more compostable. [14]

Availability

The bedding material has to be readily available in your area for horse owners to use it. Wood shavings are usually only available in areas near sawmills, and some forms of bedding are only seasonally available.

Storage

Different bedding materials are stored loose, bagged, or baled. Loose materials take up more storage space but are usually less expensive than bagged bedding.

Dustiness

Finely processed bedding, such as sawdust, can lower air quality. Breathing in fine particles is unhealthy for both horses and humans. Horses with respiratory conditions such as asthma need low-dust bedding materials. [7]

Efficiency

Cleaning stalls is labour-intensive. Bedding material that makes picking manure easy saves time and bedding, which can save money. For example, stalls with straw bedding are harder to clean out than those with sawdust or wood pellets. [22]

Cost

Some alternative bedding materials offer better cushioning and dust control, but the cost can impact their practicality.

Common Equine Bedding Materials

There are several types of bedding available for horses. Popular options include straw, wood shavings, sawdust, wood pellets, shredded paper, and peat moss.

These materials each have pros and cons that horse owners should consider before selecting which bedding is best for their horses.

Straw

Straw is the plant stalk harvested from cereal grains such as wheat, barley, oat, and rye. The stalks are cut, dried, and baled like hay. But unlike hay, this bedding material has no leaves or seed heads.

Because straw is a plant crop, it is more susceptible to mould and dustier than other products. Straw is not recommended for horses with respiratory problems.

Straw can also be an inconsistent product depending on the weather conditions when it was harvested. Some commercial brands of low-dust straw are processed to improve consistency and cleanliness.

Compared to other equine bedding materials, straw is not very absorbent. Horse owners must use a large volume of straw for bedding stalls, which increases labour costs, time and waste. It can also be expensive to import if you live in an area with little cereal crop production.

However, research consistently shows that horses housed in stalls prefer straw to other bedding materials. In sleep studies, horses spend more time lying down when bedded on straw, which may improve sleep quality. [15]

Another study found that horses voluntarily ingest straw more than other bedding materials. This could reduce the expression of stereotypic behaviours linked to a lack of access to forage. [20]

However, because straw is not as digestible as hay, consumption of this bedding could contribute to gastrointestinal problems such as colic in some horses. [10]

Straw is usually the preferred bedding of breeders. Unlike shavings, newborn foals cannot accidentally inhale straw. Shavings can also contaminate the umbilical cord, so straw is a better option for preventing post-birth complications.

Wood Shavings

For mature horses, wood shavings offer several advantages over straw bedding. Wood materials are more absorbent, consistent, and readily available. Horse owners can also buy wood shavings in bags for better storage and waste reduction.

Most importantly, wood shavings are less likely to develop mould and contain less dust. However, these products don’t compost easily, and disposal can be more complicated than straw. [14]

Certain landfills won’t accept wood products, so horse owners must find alternative ways to remove the shavings that follow local disposal regulations.

The type of wood used to create the shavings impacts quality. Soft woods such as pine provide the best cushioning for stalls. Never use products made from black walnut due to the risk of toxicity and laminitis in horses. [16]

Other toxic woods include oak, yellow poplar, and red maple. These materials can make horses sick when ingested. Some horses may also have allergies to cedar shavings.

Smaller flakes of wood shavings are more absorbent, while larger flakes offer more cushion. Large flake wood shavings are also usually recommended for horses with respiratory problems due to their lower dust content.

Sawdust

Sawdust is another wood product commonly used for bedding. This material is inexpensive and readily available but difficult to store in bulk.

The fine particles make cleaning stalls and separating manure from bedding easier. However, sawdust produces a lot of dust, irritating the horse’s eyes and airways. [8]

Sawdust is suitable for bedding in open, well-ventilated areas. It is not recommended for horses who spend lots of time inside due to its negative effect on air quality.

Wood Pellets

Wood pellets are made of compressed, dried wood or sawdust. This bedding is sold in bags and is easy to store.

These pellets are superabsorbent and expand when exposed to moisture. Some manufacturers recommend soaking the pellets before adding them to your horse’s stall, which can be labour-intensive.

Wood pellets produce significantly less dust than other wood products, but they are not ideal for cushioning. Some horse owners prefer to add wood pellets to different types of bedding to increase absorbancy where horses urinate.

Shredded Paper

Paper products are a less traditional bedding material, which is very absorbent. One study found that paper absorbed three times more water than wood shavings. [17]

Absorbent bedding is critical for managing ammonia in stables. Research suggests that ammonia levels in stalls bedded with straw exceed acceptable levels even in barns with good ventilation. [3]

However, paper bedding might not be suitable for humid areas. Paper will absorb water from the air and become heavy. Other disadvantages include a heightened risk of mould without proper storage. Some paper products are also contaminated with staples, glue, and ink.

Peat Moss

Peat moss is an alternative horse bedding material made from partially decomposed sphagnum moss. This product is commonly used by gardeners working with sandy or clay soil.

This material is the easiest to compost and a good solution for horse owners concerned about environmentally-friendly disposal. Peat moss sometimes appears dusty, but the particles are usually too large to cause respiratory problems. [14]

Peat moss is easy to muck out and comes in bags that are convenient to store. However, the bags can freeze over winter.

Some horse owners don’t like the appearance of peat moss in stalls. Gray horses might appear dirty after lying down in it, and the dark colour makes it difficult to spot manure.

Peat moss is relatively expensive, but the harvesting process is somewhat controversial. The extraction requires removing the surface of a bog, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. [18]

Other materials currently gaining popularity in the horse industry, such as hemp, might offer better bedding alternatives.

Ammonia Neutralizing Substrates

The use of products to neurtralize ammonia is also popular. These are typically applied to the bare floor under bedding.

Hydrated lime (a.k.a. agricultural lime), is the most familiar type of ammonia neutralizer. It readily absorbs urine and other fluids.

Products made from zeolite clays are also available in powder or granular form. These capture odors onto their electrically charged surface by the process of adsorption.

Simple kittty litter, with or without odor control, also works well. Since horses typically urinate in a preferred spot, the products only need to be applied over wet places.

Summary

  • Bedding absorbs moisture from urine, helps control ammonia levels, and cushions stall floors.
  • Bedding materials can impact your horse’s hoof health, respiratory function, and sleep behaviours.
  • Deep bedding encourages your horse to lie down more, which promotes adequate rest and prevents sleep deprivation.
  • The best bedding is safe, absorbent, readily available, low in dust, efficient to clean, and easy to store.
  • Horses bedded on straw spend more time laying down, but wood shavings provide better absorbency with lower dust.
  • Alternative bedding materials are easier to compost but can be expensive.

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References

  1. Amiouny, D. The effects of night light and bedding depth on equine sleep duration and memory consolidation. IBERS. 2020.
  2. Burla, J. et al. Space Allowance of the Littered Area Affects Lying Behavior in Group-Housed Horses. Front Vet Sci. 2017.View Summary
  3. Fleming, K. et al. Evaluation of Factors Influencing the Generation of Ammonia in Different Bedding Materials Used for Horse Keeping. J Equine Vet Sci. 2008.
  4. Parkes, R. et al. The foot–surface interaction and its impact on musculoskeletal adaptation and injury risk in the horse. Equine Vet J. 2015.
  5. Holzhauer, M. et al. Cross-sectional study of the prevalence of and risk factors for hoof disorders in horses in The Netherlands. Prevent Vet Med. 2017.View Summary
  6. Collins, S. et al. Stiffness as a function of moisture content in natural materials:Characterisation of hoof horn samples. J Mater Sci. 1998.
  7. Moki, J. et al. Effects of Bedding Material on Equine Lower Airway Inflammation: A Crossover Study Comparing Peat and Wood Shavings. Front Vet Sci. 2021.View Summary
  8. Kwiatkowska-Stenzel, A. et al. The effect of stable bedding materials on dust levels, microbial air contamination and equine respiratory health. Res Vet Sci. 2017.View Summary
  9.  Greening, L. et al. The effect of altering routine husbandry factors on sleep duration and memory consolidation in the horse. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2021.
  10. Greening, L. et al. Investigating duration of nocturnal ingestive and sleep behaviors of horses bedded on straw versus shavings. J Vet Behav. 2013.
  11. Airaksinen, S. Bedding and Manure Management in Horse Stables. Univ of Kuopio. 2006.
  12. Curtis, G. et al. Voluntary ingestion of wood shavings by obese horses under dietary restriction. Brit J Nutr. 2011. View Summary
  13. Borhan, S. et al. Water Absorption Capacity of Flax and Pine Horse Beddings and Gaseous Concentrations in Bedded Stalls. J Equine Vet Sci. 2014.
  14. Airaksinen, S. et al. Quality of different bedding materials and their influence on the compostability of horse manure. J Equine Vet Sci. 2001.
  15. Werhahn, H. et al. Effects of Different Bedding Materials on the Behavior of Horses Housed in Single Stalls. J Equine Vet Sci. 2010.
  16. Loftus, J. et al. Early laminar events involving endothelial activation in horses with black walnut– induced laminitis. Am J Vet Res. 2007.
  17. Ward, P. et al. Chemical, physical, and environmental properties of pelleted newspaper compared to wheat straw and wood shavings as bedding for horses. J Anim Sci. 2001.
  18. Glatzel, S. et al. Carbon dioxide and methane production potentials of peats from natural, harvested and restored sites, eastern Québec, Canada. Wetlands. 2004.
  19. Dufourni, A. et al. The risk of flax versus straw bedding on ileal impaction in colic horses: Retrospective analysis of 2336 cases (2008-2017). Vlaams Diergeneeskundig Tijdschrift. 2018.
  20. Thorne, J.B. Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: Practicality and effects on behaviour. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2005.
  21. Tjalve, H. Adverse reactions to veterinary drugs reported in Sweden during 1991-1995. J Vet Pharm Ther. 2003.
  22. Westendorf, M. Horse Manure Management: Bedding Use. Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension. 2006.