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How To Choose The Right Bedding For Your Horse

Finding the right type of bedding for your horse is essential for keeping the stable clean and ensuring their comfort. However, it’s important to find something that also works for you, the owner, as it will be your time and money spent maintaining it!

The main questions to consider when choosing bedding for your horse are:

  • Is the bedding palatable to horses?
  • Is the bedding easy to handle and pick manure from?
  • How dusty is the bedding?
  • How much does the bedding cost?
  • Is the bedding easily available all year round?
  • How absorbent is the bedding?
  • Does the bedding compost well?
  • How easy is the bedding material to store?
  • How well does the bedding work with rubber matting?
  

The purpose of bedding in stables

The main purpose of bedding is to absorb liquids, keeping the stable environment clean and hygienic. In combination with rubber matting, a small amount of highly absorbent bedding works extremely well for this purpose. In fact, rubber matting or flooring has many benfits for both horse and owner and is well worth exploring as an option in combination with your bedding material. See rubber flooring options for stables by Jelka.

However, some horses – such as veterans or those in rehab due to injury – may require a different type of bedding, or more of it, because they may wish to lie down more frequently or for longer periods.

There are plenty of bedding options available; this article will cover the pros and cons of these popular types of horse bedding:

  • Straw (wheat, barley, oat, chopped and pellets)
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Wood (pellets and shavings)
  • Hemp/Flax
  • Rubber
  

Straw

People have been bedding down stables with straw for centuries and most people would agree that a thick straw bed looks very comfortable for the horse! There are 3 different types of straw commonly found available for bedding; wheat straw, barley straw and oat straw.

Wheat straw is the most widely available and if you have horses on straw right now, the chances are, it is wheat straw! It’s relatively cheap, easy to use and allows good drainage of liquids from the stable. Although cheap in comparison to other bedding materials, prices can fluctuate a lot throughout the year depending on demand vs availability. 

Barley straw, on the other hand, tends to be cheaper than wheat straw but not always the most suitable. The prickly ears can irritate both horse and rider and become uncomfortable.

Oat straw is not as common as wheat or barley but is nevertheless a good option because it tends to be more absorbent and of higher quality. However, horses are more inclined to eat oat straw because it is very palatable.

Straw is a good option for foaling boxes because the material doesn’t stick to the newborn foal and allows the mare to lick the foal easily. Sawdust and shavings on the other hand will stick to the foal making it difficult for the mare.

Although aesthetically pleasing, straw is prone to creating dust, especially if the combine harvester chops the straw short, as then the stalk is more likely to shatter, releasing dust. Respirable particles are a risk to both humans and horses and can quickly cause respiratory issues which can seriously negatively impact the horse’s performance.

Another disadvantage of straw is that some horses find it a little too palatable – barley straw is a particular problem because the prickly awns at the head of the barley stalk can puncture and become embedded in the horse’s mouth.

Pros

Cons

Relatively inexpensive

Seasonal prices changes

Easily available

Palatable to some horses

Good for foaling boxes

Variable dust content

Looks great as bedding

Prone to mould and difficult to store and handle

 

Results in a large manure pile

 

Not very absorbent

 

Chopped straw

Chopped straw is usually chopped wheat straw and is often mixed with other bedding materials such as shavings. Most chopped straw manufacturers will add additives to chopped straw in order to; a) make it last longer, and b) make it unpalatable to the horses. Some manufacturers use preservatives and some don’t, so it is very important that you research the manufacturer before buying, in case your horse is allergic to any additives, etc. Essential oils are sometimes added to make the chopped straw unpalatable to the horses; however, this does cause the stable to smell strongly of that particular oil.

Generally, the quality of chopped straw is more consistent than conventional straw but it can work out more expensive because the material has to be processed. Chopping does make the material slightly more absorbent than normal straw, however, if the processor dust-extracts the material several times, this reduces the dust content significantly.

Pros

Cons

More absorbent than normal straw

Often with additives

Dust extracted

Palatable to horses

Consistent quality and prices

Can be difficult to source

Easier to handle and store than normal straw

More expensive than straw

Great to compost

 

Smaller manure pile compared to usual straw

 

 

Straw pellets

This is a relatively new product used for horse bedding. Pellets made from wheat straw are most common as they absorb 12 times more liquid than conventional straw and produce a natural smell. Very little dust is produced and costs could be minimised by using straw pellets alongside other materials.

Pros

Cons

Highly absorbent

Prone to mould and moisture damage

Absorbs ammonia

Not much available data to compare the product

Heat treated

 

Environmentally friendly

 

Quick and easy to compost

 

 

Wood shavings

For many years wood shavings have been a popular horse bedding, especially when horses suffer with a respiratory disease. As the quality of wood shavings varies in respect of the dust content, dust-extracted shavings are preferable. Wood shavings from a sawmill are not suitable for use as horse bedding, as they can contain sharp splinters and other hazardous waste.

Shavings produced from new wood usually have larger flakes and a low dust content, but avoid the use of any hardwood shavings. Wood shavings also provide excellent support for the horse’s hooves as they compact inside them.

Pros

Cons

Non palatable to horses

Small muck heap but takes longer to rot down

Easily available from many stockists

Prices can be seasonal

Clean, easy to store and handle

Cheaper bales can contain high dust levels

Dust-extracted

 

 

Wood pellets

It is important to research the source of wood pellets before you buy. Wood pellets for heating purposes are generally harder and have a higher density per kilogram than pellets made for bedding. Heating pellets are also made from a mix of hard and soft wood – sometimes just hardwood. It is recommended that horse owners avoid any pellets made from hardwood as they could contain small traces of toxic woods such as black walnut, maple and oak.

On the other hand, wood pellets designed for horse bedding are one of the best forms of bedding available for absorbency, consistency of quality and dust content. The manufacturing process heats and pushes the wood through small holes, forming pellets bound together by a naturally occurring binder called lignin. This process heats the wood – killing any organisms – making the final product clean and free from germs. Dust is still produced in this process so manufacturers usually filter the product 3 to 5 times to reduce this.

Pros

Cons

Regarded as eco-friendly

Activating the pellets with water takes time

Extremely absorbent

Cheap pellets can be dusty and not absorbent

Small manure pile and quick to compost

 

Heat treated in manufacturing

 

Very low dust content

 

 

 

Paper and cardboard

Waste paper and cardboard come shredded and are virtually dust free. They consist of unwanted printed matter and waste packaging which is very absorbent of liquids. The source of these materials is very important as you should be sure the product contains no glossy paper, plastic, staples or glue for health reasons. Both paper and cardboard are highly absorbent, however, once fully saturated with liquid (to the point where it won’t absorb any more), smooth surfaces can become very slippery. Saturated paper and cardboard also becomes difficult to handle when mucking out and is not very user-friendly.

Pros

Cons

Good for allergy sufferers due to low dust

Paper can blow around the yard making it look untidy

Easy to store and handle bales

Quickly becomes wet and soggy

Paper and cardboard are less likely to stick to the horse’s coat

Printing ink can stain a light-colored horse

Good insulation like straw and shavings

 

 

Flax or Hemp

As a bedding material, this is made from the chopped stalks of flax and hemp plants. It has become more popular in recent years, having a low dust content and high absorbency. Although not palatable, horses have been known to eat flax/hemp and it’s important this behaviour is prevented as the material is indigestible. Also, as this is a plant-based product it is still prone to mould, so careful preparations for storage should be made. From a reliable source, however, flax/hemp is a good product to consider as bedding.

Pros

Cons

Highly absorbent bedding

Expensive in comparison to other bedding types

Very light and easy to muck out

Inconsistent quality as it’s a growing crop

Absorbs ammonia easily

 

Non palatable

 

 

Rubber matting

Although not an alternative to bedding, rubber flooring is highly beneficial when used together with bedding. Less bedding can be used because the rubber provides a warm and slip resistant surface underneath. The bedding only needs to absorb liquids such as urine therefore, as you use less bedding, the cost of installing rubber can pay for itself quickly.

The initial cost of rubber can be off-putting; however, there are many benefits to installing rubber flooring in stables, all of which should be considered. Rubber provides support for hooves, joints and tendons, and gives the horse good grip over a concrete floor.

For more information about rubber matting for stables, check out the many benefits it provides and the various rubber flooring options available at Jelka.

Of course, there are varying grades and types of rubber flooring to consider that will also vary in price, including loose fitted stable mats, interlocking puzzle mats or a fully bonded and sealed surface. Rubber matting should be considered as a long-term investment as medium quality rubber should last the average stable occupant 10 years before needing to be replaced.

Pros

Cons

Insulates the stable (temperature and sound)

High investment costs

Prevents injury

Low grade rubber can wear very quickly

Very comfortable for horses

Urine can seep through an unsealed surface

Less bedding can be used

 

High quality rubber will last around 10 to 20 years

 

 

You might well ask – what is the best horse bedding?

A definitive answer cannot really be given as situations vary between different horses and owners. Out of everything there is to consider, two crucial points remain the same:

  1. Dust content
  2. Absorption rate

Choose a bedding material with a low dust content to avoid the horses living in a dusty environment. Over time, dust will damage a horse’s (and a human’s) airways and lungs, resulting in a lack of performance and a shortened lifespan.

A high absorption rate is key to the fast absorption of liquids, in particular the ammonia in urine. Once again, ammonia is a harmful substance that can damage the airways and lungs of horses and humans.

Several independent studies have suggested that high quality wood pellets or coarse shavings easily meet the criteria for low dust and good absorption. However, there is no right or wrong answer; when it comes to getting it right, it’s the horse owners’ responsibly to make an informed decision and choose whatever they feel is best for their horse.

If you’re looking for specialist advice on stables, bedding or rubber flooring, Jelka can help you choose the right products to suit you. From the tried and tested Comfortstall flooring to paddock equipment to robust stable tools, Jelka are experts in infrastructure, equipment and ancillary products. Visit the Jelka website now for more information.

Jared - Jelka
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 2021-02-03