Clean Stalls, Healthy Horses

Consider your options when it comes to stall flooring, bedding products, deodorizers, and ventilation, since they can all affect your horse's health

Whenever animals are kept in confined areas, cleanliness becomes synonymous with healthiness. Horses are no exception to this rule. Whether our equine buddies spend their time in stalls, paddocks, run-ins, or sheds, they deserve to reap the benefits of a well-maintained and healthy environment.

Aside from smelling and looking unsightly, a poorly kept stall or enclosure is potentially harmful to its inhabitants. Urine and particles from dust, hay, and bedding can accumulate over time and compromise your horse’s respiratory system. Damp, soiled bedding can contribute to hoof ailments like thrush. An improperly placed water source can become contaminated by fecal and hay debris.

Luckily, there are many techniques available to help horse owners combat these problems. From the type of flooring you use to the type of bedding you choose, weighing your options carefully and adjusting them according to your own personal needs can have a large impact on the time and effort it takes to maintain a safe, clean living environment.

Flooring Options
The basis of any structure is the foundation, and the same applies to the flooring of your horse’s stall or enclosure. Joey Errigo, former owner and operator of Canterbury Farm and Tack Shop in Binghamton, New York has dealt with many types of flooring in her years of keeping horses. Errigo has had experience with wood, dirt, and concrete floors. “The absolute worst is concrete, since it’s hard on the horses’ legs and hooves,” she states. Concrete is also very cold in the winter and doesn’t drain well.

• Cleanliness and healthiness are equivalent when you’re talking about your horse’s living quarters.
• Choose flooring that will be easier on your horse’s legs-something with a little give.
• Stall mats help to keep your floor surface level and clean.
• Bedding options abound, even including some newer, “green” choices.
• Cross ventilating and using stall deodorizers can help eliminate odors and dust.

Wood floors are another option. “I had 40 wood-floored stalls at Canterbury, and I liked the fact that they do give under the horses’ weight. They also stay drier since the urine oozes through the cracks and out a drain.” The down side of wood floors is that they require regular maintenance and are expensive to repair.

Most owners have dirt/clay floors, which are both low cost and easier to maintain than their wood or concrete counterparts. Earthen floors have quite a bit of capacity for urine drainage. Unfortunately, they can become dusty, muddy, absorb urine odor, and develop uneven spots.

Stall Mats
If these are problems that you’ve encountered, then investing in stall mats may resolve your issues. Although the initial purchase is sometimes a bit costly (you could end up spending a few hundred dollars per stall), the money and time they save you in the long run may well be worth the price.

Aside from reducing the need to even out annoying indentations in the floor, stall mats also reduce bedding costs. Mud and dust become less of a problem, and the time it takes to muck out the stall is reduced. The time-saving factor may be especially attractive if you own several horses.

Lisa L. Hoteling, owner and operator of Harmony Hills Ranch in Binghamton, New York, has dedicated over 20 years to the care of horses. She uses mats as a first line of defense against dust and odor. “I mat the stalls, and that’s huge because it cuts down on the time of cleaning and keeps the horses cleaner too,” she says.

However, be aware that even if you have mats in your stalls, debris can still become lodged in the seams as the mats shift over time. If so, it may eventually become necessary to clean under them. Interlocking stall mats have edges that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to reduce shifting. Yet even without the interlocking feature, the scenario of pulling mats back to clean the area beneath should be a relatively rare occurrence.

Stall Bedding
Bedding is another important consideration in maintaining a clean environment for your horse-and myriad choices exist. It may take a little experimentation to find which option suits your specific needs. There are many traditional materials available-like shavings, sawdust, and straw-each having its own advantages and drawbacks. Shavings and sawdust are common in many stables because of their cost efficiency and availability. However, both options-sawdust especially-tend to be dusty and can cause respiratory issues in sensitive horses and people. Straw is often used as bedding, but it can get moldy and isn’t very absorbent. It also takes more time to separate the soiled straw from the rest.

Joey Errigo, who has experience with all of the above-mentioned materials, still prefers shavings. “It’s easy to pick out manure, and shavings absorb most of the urine,” she says.

However, Hoteling prefers newer products like wood pelleted bedding. “It [Woody Pet] works a lot like kitty litter, so when the urine soaks into the bedding, it soaks it up and retains it. I find that works really well with a lot of the odor problems,” she says. Hoteling also feels that there is less waste with pelleted bedding. “What’s going in your wheelbarrow is 98% manure, whereas if you use wooden shavings, half of that is going out in the wheelbarrow.”

Of course, no matter what bedding you use, it is still necessary to muck out stalls at least once a day-more if your horse is convalescing and restricted to a small space-as well as to provide adequate turn-out time whenever possible.

Deodorizers/Stall Fresheners
Controlling ammonia can be especially challenging when caring for horses that eliminate consistently in one place or urinate frequently. In this situation, Hoteling says, “I add something to my shavings like PDZ or Stall DRY. You put that down in the real wet area and then cover it up with shavings.”

Taking measures like the above to control ammonia build-up in stalls should be imperative. Breathing ammonia places stress on a horse’s respiratory function; prolonged exposure to ammonia can make him vulnerable to ailments such as pneumonia and heaves.

Traditionally, people have used some form of lime in an attempt to counteract the harmful by-products of urine. While “barn lime” or calcium carbonate is benign, “hydrated lime” is caustic, hard on hooves, and must be used carefully.

Newer products like Sweet PDZ and Stall DRY are generally safer and may work better at absorbing odor and neutralizing ammonia. Zeolites, the main ingredient in Sweet PDZ, are naturally occurring minerals that can convert the harmful gases released through the breakdown of animal waste into nitrogen. Stall DRY, another popular option, uses a mix of granular clay and diatomaceous earth to achieve a similar end.

Barn Ventilation
Proper ventilation helps control unpleasant odors and prevents the accumulation of ammonia. Newer structures can be designed with vents and exhaust fans, but older barns and stables may not have been ideally built. To make certain there is constant air circulation, barn doors and stall windows should be opened daily year-round, even in cold climates-except, of course, if it is below freezing or stormy. If necessary, use blankets to keep your horses warm, but make sure the air they breath is fresh and circulating.

If you have a way to cross-ventilate your barn, then take advantage of it. For instance, open doors at both ends of the barn or open two opposing windows.

We’ve all been inside of a stuffy, closed-in room and felt the relief when the door was opened and fresh air rushed in. Your horse probably feels the same way when the door to his individual stall is kept shut, allowing the air inside to become stagnant. Whenever possible, use stall guards or stall gates instead; this allows air to circulate at ground level, where ammonia is likely to be strongest.

Fans and vents can also help to circulate air. If you’re building a new barn, contact an engineering consultant or a farm building contractor to help you choose a design with sufficient ventilation that also avoids drafts.

Water and Food Space
Keeping your horse’s space conducive to his well-being also means that his water and food sources should be placed so that they are least likely to become contaminated by debris like hay and manure. Hang the water and feeding buckets off the ground. Hay can be placed in a hay net, but avoid hanging the net over or too near the water source to reduce bits falling into the bucket. Hoteling simply prefers to sweep the bedding back to create a separate area in the front of her stall to place hay. “I feed my hay on the floor so I don’t want my bedding and my hay to mix,” she says.

Ideally, water buckets need to be taken down, cleaned, and rinsed at least once a week. Scrubbing out buckets with baking soda is effective and kills odors, but Hoteling has heard of other methods as well. “You can use dish soap or mouth wash, just a little bit in each bucket, swish it around and throw out the used water.”

Grounds Maintenance
Horses do spend time in other environments besides stalls, which necessitates making certain that paddocks, aisles, and the rest of the barn is kept clean. Simple measures like taking a broom or long-handled duster and knocking down cobwebs can keep your structure looking nice, and also keep dust at bay. Cement aisles should be swept frequently and kept dry because of their inability to drain. “I have dirt aisle ways. For the most part, I’ve found that it’s only in the summer that it gets dusty in here, so I water everything down at night,” Hoteling says of her ranch.

Storing hay in a hay loft or separate shed keeps particles and pieces from flying everywhere, and keeps the hay cleaner as well.

To ensure that your horse is eating the cleanest feed possible, make certain that you store it correctly. Metal garbage cans with tightly closed lids make economical storage containers and keep rodents out. Hoteling also suggests that you “Stick with a known-brand, good-quality feed.”

Of course, our horses should spend a large portion of their day outdoors, and small enclosures can develop problems if not maintained properly. Vegetation is very helpful in keeping outdoor spaces clean and pleasant. To reduce wear on the pasture, Hoteling suggests alternating feeding locations so that animals aren’t always congregating in the same place. “When [the horses] go out, they immediately have hay ready for them in the morning. I throw it on the ground, but I make sure I move it to a different spot every time so that they’re not constantly mucking up one area,” she says.

High-traffic locations inevitably end up churned and worn, becoming mud pits in wet weather and frozen, difficult-to-navigate potholes in winter. “Putting gravel down, especially in gate areas from the pastures or if you have a lane where you’re constantly bringing horses in and out, really does help,” Hoteling advises. She also mentions crushed stone and sand as an alternative. However, she cautions against pavement because safety issues can arise if it becomes icy or wet.

The Lay of the Land
Another important-and often overlooked-way to maintain a clean environment and prevent damage to your property is to remember that the land can support only a finite number of horses. Overcrowding can cause sanitation problems even among the most vigilant of caretakers. Know the recommended population guidelines in your area.

“Get a professional to come in and look at your land to give you advice on how to take care of it,” suggests Hoteling. The Soil and Water Conservation districts in your area should provide specifically tailored information on how to maintain your property and conserve natural resources.

If you encounter a specific problem over and over again, such as water pooling in an area of your pasture, hiring someone to landscape the property may well be worth the investment. Currently, Harmony Hills’ indoor ring has a tendency to be damp along one side after a heavy rain. Hoteling plans to use her husband’s talents as a professional landscaper to fix the problem. “One of our spring projects is going to be to re-slope and re-grade everything because right now the water is draining into my indoor arena!”

Even if it takes some planning and investment to tackle the challenges particular to your own situation, maintaining a clean environment for your horse is a task well worth taking the time to implement. Minor changes-such as the type of bedding you use or placing gravel in trampled lanes-can save you time and hassle and can create the perfect environment for one of your most beloved possessions-your perfect horse.

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