Question: What is the best type of stall base flooring? I am designing my own barn, and I am trying to find the best material in the long run. We have some older horses so cushioning is a must. I read that concrete even with rubber mats can be hard on joints.
Answer: Stall flooring is one of the most important aspects of building or revamping a barn. The type of floor can help the indoor air quality or make it terrible as well as be comfortable or not to the horses. Both factors are equally important in my view. A floor without adequate drainage for the urine will build up odor no matter what type of bedding you use. If you close the barn doors, the ammonia levels become toxic (see my article on indoor horses) and all horses, but especially the older ones, will have respiratory problems. An excellent review of floor types can be found at www.age.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/g/g96.pdf.
For drainage you will have to talk to your barn builder who knows the local soil types and what it takes to provide drainage for many years, usually several layers of increasingly smaller gravel until you get to the top layer. Solid floors such as cement or asphalt do not drain well and even if you could provide a cushion are generally a poor choice. Older barn conversions on dairy farms often have to deal with concrete floors, but in some cases they have at least a natural slope that encourages drainage to an outdoor area where you wash away the urine. Over the years however, you will need to remove mats and clean under them well. The thing to remember about odor is that the horse has its nose at the ground level all the time, while your nose is quite a few feet above the ground.
As far as cushion on the horses' legs, hard surfaces covered with rubber mats are generally poor. However, there are some new mats that may be better, though they may be hard to find or have to be shipped long distances. Shipping is costly with the current oil prices and may influence significantly what you can afford. Several websites with potential mats are: www.diamond-safety.com/Stall%20Mats.html, www.frelonicstablemats.com, www.buytack.com/products-ranch/sfp/mightylite.htm. A good place to check out various flooring materials is to attend a horse expo near you. You can see, feel and stand on the material first hand.
Many of the mats work on a well-drained stone dust or non-hard surfaced stall. You need to ask the manufacturer how to prepare the surface so you do not have to deal with edges coming up or curling. As with any new construction, when you put a new floor down or revamp an old floor, you may have to adjust the ground cover material after a few years as it settles in. Traditional rubber mats, while heavy and hard to handle do work well over a commonly used floor of packed stone dust, though over something like sand the edges may curl as the sand moves around with the weight of the horse.
Once you have your new floor, be sure to use enough bedding to soak up most of the urine. There will always be some urine that gets through to the ground (that is why drainage is so important). But using too little bedding, as some manufacturers encourage, can leave the horse with ammonia odor for a good portion of the night. You should be able to walk into a stall after a long night with a horse inside, put your nose near the ground and smell very little ammonia. Urine should not be puddled anywhere. High quality absorbent bedding needs much less quantity than something like straw which hardly absorbs anything.
Take your time, do your research and work as best as you can with the materials you have available, and you can create an excellent stall environment for your horse.
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia.
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