For the last half a century, U.S. horse owners and stable managers have chosen mostly between two types of bedding — straw and shavings. (Yes, other bedding types are available in certain regions, but not across the country.)
Straw’s big drawbacks have always been three: First, it’s time-consuming to clean, requiring you divide the stall into sections and pick through every strand. Plus, it’s kept best if the manure is picked out several times a day, making it most suitable for a barn with a dedicated staff. Second, it’s dusty when put in the stall and not terribly absorbent either. Third, it requires a lot of space to store it, especially for a large barn, space you’d probably rather use for hay. And today, it’s expensive as it’s not a profitable product for most farmers.
All those factors made shavings became popular as the American horse population (and housing industry) began to grow 50 years ago. But shavings can also be quite dusty (although it’s far more absorbent than straw), and storage has always been an issue. The least-expensive way to get shavings is to have a dump truck drop a load near your barn, but you have to keep that pile from blowing away or getting wet. Bagged shavings are easier to store and keep dry, but more expensive. Plus, in some areas removing waste is an issue because the wood flakes don’t break down quickly enough to suit gardeners or nurseries.
Expense and storage were the factors that prompted us to investigate pelletized bedding for our 10-stall training barn in Northern California. We were skeptical when we first heard about pelletized bedding, doubting the claims made by the manufacturer could be true. But after nearly two years of using pelletized bedding — and having to clean stalls bedded with shavings or straw while at competitions — we’ll never go back.
Yes, you do have to get used to cleaning stalls and adding bedding in a new way. To clean the stall, you basically just remove the manure and spread the bedding around, allowing it to soak up the urine. Then you mix up all the bedding with your pitchfork to keep it ”fluffed up.” You only have to remove the bedding if it’s completely saturated.
To add bedding, you can open a bag in the stall and spray it lightly with water; you can pour a bag into a manure bucket or similar container and soak it; or you can just spread a bag in the stall and let the pellets soften over a couple of days as they absorb urine and other moisture.
Some pelletized bedding users have complained of an ammonia odor in their stalls, so a number of manufacturers offer products to address this problem. But on the few occasions we’ve noticed it, it’s been caused by urine that hasn’t been absorbed by the bedding. We’ve found that mixing the bedding thoroughly into the urine has taken care of the problem, but this may not be sufficient in more humid climates.
Unquestionably, the financial savings, storage-space savings, reduction of dust, the dramatically slower growth of your manure pile, and the ease of quick composting overcome those minor adjustments to what you’re used to doing.
Plus, pellets are a significantly ”green” way to minimize what your horses create because they’re made from wood byproducts. You remove little from your stalls each day, and what you do remove is almost like topsoil. That’s because the small amount of wood byproducts breaks down quickly and easily when composted, which leaves a low carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Consequently, the nutrients in the manure will be released to the soil and plants where you spread it (instead of extracting the soil’s nutrients, like shavings does).
What Is It'
Pelletized bedding is dehydrated and compressed softwood byproducts that absorb moisture as they expand. Because they’re compressed into pellets, the 30- or 40-pound bags take up about one-third as much storage space as shavings and expand to three to five times their volume when moisture is added.
Pelletized bedding is a relatively new product, since most of the companies that produce it have only been doing it for about a decade or less. It’s an industry that sprang from two sources: Producers of pelletized fuel for wood stoves who sensed another product they could offer, or producers of animal bedding who realized they needed to develop a product that used less wood than shavings.
Note: You can burn bedding pellets in your wood stove, if you want to do so, but you’d be ill-advised to use fuel pellets for bedding because the bedding pellets are far more thoroughly screened for dust and contaminants. The fact that the bedding pellets will burn is one reason why some feed-store owners won’t carry them — homeowners buy them before they can sell them to horse owners for bedding.
The wood these manufacturers use (pine, because it’s two to three times more absorbent than hardwoods and not toxic to horses) is a byproduct of other manufacturing processes. Pelletized bedding uses wood that was once dumped in landfills or burned by sawmills, furniture makers, and other manufacturers, whose managers are delighted to sell their byproducts to someone.
”One of the big benefits of wood pellets is that the initial raw material doesn’t have to be in such a beautiful form as it does with shavings. Then we can mill two times as much bedding, using half as much raw material. And then horse owners put about half as much waste into their manure piles,” said Claire Brant, co-owner of Guardian Horse Bedding, based in Rockford, Ill.
Guardian, which has eight plants in North America, also produces fuel pellets with the wood byproducts it doesn’t use for animal bedding. Brant claims that they’re unusual among pelletized bedding manufacturers in that they started by making bedding and then added fuel.
Companies like Woody Pet, Nature’s Earth (makers of Equine Pine) and PlanetWise (makers of Equine Fresh) make bedding for a variety of other livestock and domestic pets.
Distribution Is The Key
Pelletized bedding could be tricky to use in the northern states or Canada because freezing temperatures could impede your ability to add water to it. But the manufacturers say their products won’t freeze (except possibly in the most extreme conditions), and if it’s too cold to add water, you can just mix a new bag in with old bedding. Within a day or two, urine or other moisture will have softened the pellets.
”The only time it could be an issue is if you’re putting entirely new bedding in a stall,” said, Brant, of Guardian, noting they have a manufacturing plant in Ontario.
The bigger issue for most horse owners or stable managers is distribution. Just like brands of horse feed, no brand of palletized bedding is uniformly available throughout the United States. It depends on the number and location of their plants and the distribution network.
For example, Guardian has 73 dealers in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Minnesota, but they have only seven in New York/New Jersey, one in California and none in the other far-Western states. Woody Pet has plants across the country and a very large distribution network for their variety of pet products. Still, their distributor may not be as close or have as good a price as another brand’s distributor.
Because of these geographical limitations, this investigation didn’t compare specific products. Some manufacturers claim their products are less dusty or more finely screened than others, but those differences are likely to be subtle or even meaningless to you, unless you have a horse with a severe medical issue.
The two factors that are most likely to determine which product you use are which product you can get most easily and the price.
All of the products mentioned here cost roughly $5 to $11 per bag, particularly if you can buy them in bulk (by the pallet). The price difference is determined by manufacturing process and by the distributor, and the distributor’s price will largely depend on shipping costs and whether you pick it up or have it delivered. Since these products are primarily distributed by dealers, the dealer closest to you will likely have the best price.
But convenience and logistics will also be factors. For instance, for this article, we called Guardian to ask what it would cost to use their pellets in our barn in California. The 40-pound bags would cost $5.85 each, but we’d have to receive a full truckload of them from their Arizona plant — 20 double-shrink-wrapped pallets of 55 bags each. And, according to the price quote, ”You are responsible for unloading the truck. This will require either a forklift or a tractor with a fork attachment and pallet jack to move the pallets from the front of the truck to the rear for unloading.”
Since we don’t have that equipment, or a place to easily store 1,100 bags, the attractive price isn’t at all helpful.
But buying Best Pine pellets by the truckload saves Tracy Underwood, owner of Santa Rosa Equestrian Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., about $1,200 a month over shavings. Since she doesn’t have a pallet jack, she gets the shrink-wrapped pallets (stored right outside the barns) delivered about every 10 weeks on a flatbed truck so that her staff can unload them. She also saves on the back end, because the 80 horses stabled there cause the manure pile, which she pays to have hauled away, to grow about half as fast.
We initially used Woody Pet, but we had to make a 40-mile roundtrip to pick up a full pallet (the only way this store would sell them) in our pickup, then unload the pallet bag by bag.
So we switched to Mallard Creek because that’s the brand our hay and grain supplier carries. It’s most time- and cost-effective to order a truck delivering all three products twice a month. Plus, the firm allows us to order one bag or a pallet at a time, and they’ll stack the bags almost anywhere we want them. We pay $5.75 per bag, or $5 per bag if we get a full pallet.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing and dressage. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics.