Bedding Basics for Equine Managers

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Bedding. It’s a topic and a need that’s as old as, well, horses. Bedding choices have remained relatively consistent throughout the years. Deciding which bedding might work best for your barn is a process that involves many considerations–and perhaps even some experimentation.

Types of Bedding

Wood shavings and straw are classic mainstays in many barns. Shavings drain well, are easy to use, are generally absorbent, and are usually widely available. Make sure you know what type of wood the shavings are made from; laminitis can occur if horses are bedded on walnut shavings.

Straw is more labor intensive, but when managed correctly, it provides a clean, dry top layer of bedding and good cushioning underneath. It also drains well, but is not particularly absorbent.

Farm owners and managers looking to ‘think outside the box’ can choose from a range of alternative materials, including peat moss, sand, shredded paper/cardboard and grain hulls. Paper is inexpensive and dust-free, but is difficult to clean and must be used in high volumes to provide sufficient cushioning,

Wood pellets are a relative newcomer to the bedding scene, but they appear to be gaining in popularity. Robyn Dolby, a horse care professional based in the Northeast, has been experimenting with shavings and wood pellets and uses a combination to bed her horses.

“The wood pellets contain the urine to one spot in the stall, so I ultimately end up using less bedding. Cleanup is faster, and bedding waste is next to none,” she explained.

The table below summarizes some popular bedding options.

Weighing the Options

The choice of bedding depends on many factors. Topping the list is the health of your horse(s). Virginia Powell, licensed veterinary technician at Fairfield Equine Associates in Newtown, Connecticut, gives a quick overview. “For horses on stall rest, or those who have laminitis, peat moss is an excellent choice because it provides superb cushioning,” Powell explained. “However, it can get dusty so would not be a good option for a horse with a respiratory condition. In the case of respiratory issues, you would pick long-stem straw [long stalks are less dusty than chopped straw] or even shredded cardboard, which produces no dust, “ she explained. “Wood pellets also keep the dust down, provided they are used properly.”

Other factors to consider include availability and cost of materials, labor/maintenance, personal preference and boarder expectations (if applicable). Martin Douzant, owner of The Frame Sport Horses in Middleburg, Virginia, has a unique international perspective the issue. “In France, horses are often bedded in straw that is freshened daily and emptied twice a week to save on labor costs. This approach would not go over well in the U.S., where clients expect a higher standard of care for their horses.”

Don’t overlook the issue of disposal when choosing bedding for your barn. If you are looking to compost or spread the bedding on your fields, then straw, peat, a combination of shavings and peat, and paper are all excellent choices to investigate.

Bedding Cost

Bedding costs will vary regionally and are subject to change depending on availability, abundance and local agronomy. For instance, straw and hull beddings are cheaper in farm areas, although the straw supply is being challenged by the biofuel industry. Wood shavings will tend to be less expensive in areas where lumber is processed.

There are many hidden costs to consider as well. Does the bedding have to be shipped? Is it labor intensive or time-consuming to maintain? Does it need to be hauled away, or can it be composted and sold or spread on the fields? (Check on this with your local extension service and zoning regulations.) Do you need any special equipment to process the material on a scale that makes sense for your operation? All of these factors affect your bedding budget.

Experiment with Different Types

Finding the best option might be a matter of trial and error until you get just the right system that is healthy and comfortable for both your horse and your budget. Some experts recommend trying a new type of bedding on one or two stalls before committing to the entire barn. As Douzant explained, “You might need to experiment to find the best balance between your horses’ health and your costs and labor. And sometimes, you need to be willing to have a little trade-off, provided your horses remain healthy and comfortable. ”

Table. Which bedding is right for your barn?


A Note About Pine Shavings

When comparing bedding products, weight and volume are inversely proportional. Expanded volume is a crucial variable because it determines how many bales are needed to bed a stall. The volume-weight disparity is a function of the percentage of fines (particulate matter), the loft and refinement of the flake, and the moisture content. The ideal bedding has great loft, enough fines for optimum absorption without dust, and 15% or less moisture.

Factoid: Did you know that caring for a single horse could produce more than 10 tons of waste (manure plus bedding) each year? (This information was cited in an article by Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota.)


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