Bedding For Horses: Material Choices

Explore various equine bedding materials other than shavings to provide your horse with a clean, healthy stall.
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Explore various equine bedding materials other than shavings to provide your horse with a clean, healthy stall.

Have you often wondered about other bedding materials for your horse? Would you like to try something that's less dusty or easier to store in your barn and shed? Maybe you're interested in perfecting your compost pile and would like to know how your choice of equine bedding plays into that? We'll walk you through the choices of equine materials and the criteria for choosing the horse bedding that will work best for you and your horse .

bedding-for-horses

Horse Bedding Criteria

• Safe for horses
• Readily Available
• Absorbent
• Composts Well
• Easy to store
• Easy to handle and pick manure from
• Not too dusty
• Cost-effective

The word "bedding" is a bit of a misnomer in the horse world. Many of us horse owners think we need to bed our stalls as we would have our own beds - soft and fluffy. But horses by nature don't need a soft, fluffy bed, unless there are particular concerns, such as old horses who might lie down frequently or stay down for longer periods of time. The primary purpose of bedding is to absorb urine and moisture.

But absorbing urine isn't the only factor. We'll need to consider:

• The space you have available to house your horse
• Where and how you will store your bedding
• Whether you or your horse have allergies that dust will aggravate
• How you will manage your waste disposal
• The availability of different beddings in your part of the country
• The cost and cost-effectiveness of various beddings

So given that, here are your choices and how they stack up.

Horse Bedding Options

Shavings
Nothing quite looks and smells like a stall freshly bedded with traditional shavings of pine or fir. While shavings smell wonderful, they aren't very absorbent and may not be your best choice.

bedding-for-horses-shavings

Different types of shavings are more absorbent than others. Kiln-dried shavings with a lower overall moisture content will be better than heavier and more chip-like shavings.

Shavings, particularly loose shavings, are also notoriously dusty, creating a layer of dust on everything from you and your horse to the walls of your barn. In order to avoid equine respiratory problems (and a potential fire hazard when layers of fine wood particles build up), you need good ventilation in a barn when using loose shavings, as well as attention to keeping cobwebs and dust layers reduced.

You will save money buying loose shavings in bulk instead of bagged shavings, but you will require a shavings bin or other storage area. It is best to have the bin area located away from your barn to avoid the dust problem. Be sure this area is easily accessible year-round by delivery trucks. Bagged shavings are costly, but easier to use, convenient to store and are far less dusty.

Cedar bedding is not recommended because it resists decomposition. Also, a very small percentage of horses are allergic (skin sensitivity) to cedar.

Wood Pellets
A variety of pelleted wood products are becoming popular in many parts of the country. Wood pellets are made of kiln-dried wood (usually fir, alder or pine, and very little cedar) and sawdust. The fine material is compressed into a small, hard pellet that expands back to sawdust once exposed to moisture. Wood pellets are low in dust.

bedding-for-horses-wood-pellets

Pellets are usually sold by the bag, which makes transporting and storage easy. With the addition of a cover or tarp, you may even be able to store them outside.

The extremely low moisture of the pellet makes it highly absorbent, and the fine material afterward composts quite well. You may even be able to use wood-stove pellets as bedding if you find they are cheaper. But be sure they are 100% wood products, with no glue or chemical additives.

Some brands of pelleted bedding contain zeolite additives to help with odor control. Zeolite, a naturally occurring mineral, absorbs ammonia and reduces it in the air, thereby helping with respiratory issues. Zeolite products are good to add to the compost pile, as they slowly release nitrogen back into the soil.

Stalls bedded with wood pellets do not need to be cleaned the same way as with traditional shavings. Cleaning works best in stalls with rubber mats. Empty two to three bags into a clean stall. Hoof action and moisture (even just from the air) break the pellets down into fine sawdust. If you prefer having the sawdust right away, you can spray the pellets to gently dampen them.

Cleaning the stall will be more like cleaning a cat's litter box. Remove manure but take out as little of the bedding as possible. For urine, only take out the sopping wet portion and remix the damp bedding with dry until you can't tell what was damp and what was dry. Two bags in a stall can last a week to several weeks. Some horse owners just add a portion of a bag at a time.

Disadvantages to pelleted bedding include learning how to clean a stall with pellets. If someone else cleans for you, this could take time and training, and you may end up wasting clean bedding at first. Also, in very cold climates the pellets may not absorb moisture well.

Other types of wood products can make excellent bedding materials, including alder sawdust. It is usually sold as "green" sawdust, which means that it is not dried and that the small pieces are more like tiny chips versus shavings.

Alder is a soft wood, and without the lignums of deciduous trees it breaks down quickly and composts well, much better than pine or fir. Its ability to break down quickly and compost fully makes this product popular among gardeners and composters. This product is absorbent and low in dust. Disadvantages are that you can only find it regionally (where alder trees grow naturally) and that, so far, it is only available in bulk form.

Peat Moss
Peat moss is another useful bedding material, and those who use it are very devoted followers. Studies show that peat is the most absorbent bedding material available, a real plus if you have respiratory issues in your barn.

bedding-for-horses-peat-moss

Horses seem to like it because it is a soft bedding. It is also a useful addition to your compost pile as well as your pastures or garden.

Drawbacks include that as a very fine organic material it can be dusty at drier times of the year or in windy locations. Also, some horse owners find the dark, dirty look of peat bedding in a stall unappealing. Also, because it requires shipping, it can be expensive.

Straw
Straw is a traditional bedding with a long history. Today, you'll find straw bedding most often at racetracks and at breeding farms, especially in certain areas of the country.

bedding-for-horses-straw

Straw is not particularly absorbent, and as such it is used differently than other absorbing beddings. Straw is used to form a sort of "mat" or barrier between manure and urine, which settles to the bottom of the stall. You need to bed deeply with straw to attain this "mat effect." Perhaps this is where the tradition of putting lots of bedding in a horse's stall came from.

Wheat and oat straw are most commonly used. Straw can be a low-cost option - unless you live where there is a shortage of straw and the price is sky-high.

Probably the most important advantage to straw is that it composts well and is usually the preferred stall waste bedding of gardeners and farmers. Mushroom growers prefer straw stall waste (and will not accept stall waste with any wood products) and thus are often found adjacent to racetracks.

Disadvantages include storage problems. Straw bales require lots of room to store because you need several bales per stall and about five bales per horse per week. Straw tends to be dusty and can be moldy, too - a definite drawback for horses or people with respiratory issues. Also, problems with ammonia accumulation in the barn environment are greater with straw bedding because of its low absorbency rate. Finally, straw is edible and not a good bedding choice for horses who should watch their "waistlines."

Shredded Newspaper
Newspaper bedding is an excellent product that unfortunately is not widely available. Newspaper bedding is usually made from overruns of unused newspaper stock cut or torn into strips. The manner in which they are torn improves their ability to absorb and prevents sharp edges that can cut. In today's world, ink is soy-based, so there are no longer the concerns of heavy metals that there used to be.

bedding-for-horses-shredded-newspaper

Newspaper is completely dust- and foreign object-free and an excellent choice if anyone in your family or barn suffers from respiratory problems. Racetrack trainers use it for horses with allergies.

Since it's usually available either bagged or baled, newspaper bedding is easy to store. It fits into a small space, or, with the addition of a tarp, you can store it behind your barn. Shredded newspaper bedding is also cleaner than other bedding products and composts nicely - one of the best, actually.

Disadvantages include high cost and you need some training to learn how to clean a stall with this bedding. It also takes some time to get used to the "look" of newsprint in a stall. If you live in a windy climate, newspaper strips tend to blow around.

Alternative Products
Other interesting alternative bedding products available include rice hulls (in parts of California), wheat by-products (eastern Washington), shredded phone books (via the Internet), hemp (countries outside of the U.S.) and shredded cardboard (via the Internet and east of the Mississippi). Pelleted straw is also sometimes available as a bedding. You may be able to find free or low-cost shavings if you live near a sawmill or wood processor and can just pick up their wastes yourself.

Be aware, though, that some of these wastes can contain sharp edges or be splintery. Also be aware that some woods, such as black walnut, are highly toxic to horses and should never be used as bedding.

One of the newest alternative bedding products is kenaf, an experimental agricultural product being grown in the southeastern United States. Its agricultural roots trace back 4,000 years through Africa and India to Egyptian times.

Kenaf, which is related to cotton and okra, is a fast-growing fibrous plant that has many uses, including making paper. When ground up, the stem core is suitable as animal bedding, resembling spongy kitty litter or cereal. It is reported to be highly absorbent, dustless, non-allergenic and extremely biodegradable.

For now, availability seems to be limited to North Carolina and the Southeast. However, if kenaf becomes available in your area, it certainly would be worth checking out.

Rubber Stall Mats
A final bedding consideration is using rubber stall mats. A rubber stall mat is a healthy surface for the horse to stand on, with enough "give" for a cushioning effect.

A stall mat offers a firm, level surface that makes chore time simpler - you can easily scoop up manure and soiled bedding and leave clean bedding behind. You may also be able to reduce the amount of bedding you currently use in the stall to a light "litter" layer or only bed in "potty spots." If your horses have access to paddocks, you may even be able to eliminate bedding completely.

Reducing the amount of bedding used and cleaning stalls more judiciously will also reduce the amount of stall waste. Rubber mats may be a pricey investment initially (approximately $150 per 12' x 12' stall), but they pay for themselves in stall cleaning convenience, reduced bedding costs, less storage space needed for stall waste and in comfort for your horse.

Everybody's Bedding Needs Differ

Horses' Space. Horses confined to a stall will require more bedding in order to absorb urine and moisture than horses with lots of turnout. If your horse uses his stall primarily for feeding and protection from severe weather, he won't need as much bedding.
Storage. Storage of bedding will be a major consideration for people short on land space, whereas those with storage room and easy access for delivery trucks may be able to buy bedding in bulk.
Dust. If your horse has heaves or other respiratory issues, or if you have allergies or asthma yourself, you'll want an absorbent bedding with low dust, mold and foreign object count. Also, the greater the bedding's absorbency, the lower the ammonia level will be in your barn, and breathing ammonia can damage lung tissue in you and your horse.
Managing Waste. If you compost your stall waste, you may prefer bedding that will compost faster and more completely. Our top choices in this category are pelleted wood bedding, alderwood green sawdust and shredded newspaper bedding

If you apply your stall waste straight to your land, the big concern is the amount of carbon. Almost all beddings are carbon, and too much carbon dumped onto pastures will rob soils of nitrogen, turning pasture plants yellow.

If you plan to give away your stall waste, do your homework. In some parts of the country, gardeners and farmers prefer stall waste with straw bedding. Elsewhere, herbicides associated with straw can cause problems, so growers (and commercial composters) may want to steer away from stall waste containing straw bedding.
Availability. Investigate bedding types and sources available in your area. For example, in a heavily timbered area you may find good sources of alder sawdust or pelleted bedding. Likewise, in another part of the country newspaper bedding might be more readily available. Don't be afraid to shop around and ask questions.
Horse Health. If you choose a non-traditional product, be sure to check with your vet or other knowledgeable resource because some materials (such as black walnut) are extremely toxic to horses. Chipped landscaping material from tree trimming services is not recommended as horse bedding. Many types of trees are toxic to horses when eaten, especially those used in landscaping (such as black locust, parts of oak trees, horse chestnut, etc.). Also, horses could eat the molding green material in the chips. Your horse may want to eat some beddings, such as straw, and you should evaluate any health risk.
Cost. Many products may be more expensive pound for pound, but if they are highly absorbent you won't need to use as much. Buying in bulk may save you some money, too.

Bottom line
As you can see, the advantages to making a bedding choice best suited for you and your horses are substantial. Don't just stick with what you've always done or what your neighbor uses. Times have changed and you have many more options readily available. The bedding you choose can offer improved time savings, space savings, cost savings, improved composting and fewer dust or allergy problems.

For what is most readily available on the market today, we recommend wood pelleted bedding. Wood pellets are easiest to store and use, and are low in dust. The fine wood particles and high absorbency rate increase their compost ability. Whether you apply stall waste straight to your pastures or compost it and use it, wood pelleted bedding can make good sense for you.

Finding Suppliers
• Inquire at your feed store for types of pelleted bedding, stall mats, straw bales and other bedding types that they carry, then compare costs. An advantage to bagged beddings is you can easily sample different bedding types.
• Wood-stove pellets may be cheaper than pelleted bedding. They are usually sold at feed stores as well as grocery stores and home improvement centers. You may be able to purchase them at a better price by the pallet. If you are buying wood-stove pellets, be sure they are 100% wood products, with no glue or chemical additives.
• Peat moss should be available at your local garden supply or home improvement center, although it tends to be more available during the spring and summer months.
• Bulk, loose shavings and alder sawdust are available from shavings supply companies. Check in your phone book or locally on the Internet.
• Locating a source of newspaper bedding will require some sleuthing. You can try calling local newspaper publishers or timber or paper companies to inquire with them. If you live near a racetrack, feed companies that supply the horsemen at the track can order it for you.
• Kenaf suppliers are available over the Internet. A Google search for "Kenaf horse bedding" will give you several options.