Many people with horses pride themselves on having what we perceive to be a cosy, comfortable stable to ensure their horse has a warm, good night’s rest. However people are sometimes guilty of using a certain type of bedding out of habit because it’s what they’re used to, or because it is what is available on the yard for a reasonable price. After an amazing summer we are starting to realise that winter is creeping upon us and the nights are slowly starting to get darker and colder, and it is time to start thinking about the upcoming winter and your horse’s needs. When it comes to bedding you shouldn’t be complacent or get too comfortable, but regularly assess your circumstances to ensure you are using the best bedding for you and your horse.
One of the biggest factors to consider is dust in your stable, and bedding is one of the main sources of this. As well as potentially including harmful bacteria, molds and viruses dust can cause and/or aggravate respiratory disorders which can cause your horse a lot of discomfort. Ventilation is vitally important in any stable no matter what type of bedding you use, but even the most well ventilated stables cannot counteract the effect of very dusty bedding. Throughout the winter horses tend to spend more time in their stables so remember to consider their needs and the environment carefully. The highest dust levels occur when the bed is disturbed during mucking out, which is a good way for you to gauge how suitable the bedding is. If you find it very dusty and a hard environment for you to be in then your horse may be feeling the same. Where possible it is always good to try and muck out when your horse is out in the field or to remove him/her in order to prevent them unnecessarily inhaling additional dust.
Always purchase good quality bedding as this can have a big impact on how cost effective the bedding is, and how it can affect your horses health. Don’t be afraid to try different products to find out for yourself what they are like, just because one type of bedding suits your friend on the yard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also right for you and your horse. We are all individuals so do your research and try and make the time to try or at least look at some different products and different suppliers. Poor quality bedding can prove to be more dusty and sometimes more difficult to work with as there can be more waste. Availability of products is also a factor to consider because if you can’t find a local supplier you may end up paying more in delivery costs. However sometimes you can get good deals when buying in bulk so it is also worth asking about any available discounts for large loads, even if it is a bit further afield. You also need to consider storage of your bedding to ensure it is protected from the elements, especially if buying in bulk as it will need to be stored for longer.
Some of the main types of bedding and some basic advantages and disadvantages of each are listed below, but there is no substitute for researching them yourself and trying some out if possible.
Straw. Wheat Straw makes excellent bedding and it can be used for a deep litter bed. It’s cheap, easily available, absorbent and warm. It rots down well, and is easy to dispose of in a muck heap or can be sold or given away as it makes a good garden fertiliser. It may not suitable for horses with dust allergies or respiratory problems and you need to consider storage as they need a lot of space in a dry area.
Barley Straw is usually longer, of better quality and a brighter colour than wheat straw. Barley straw can cause problems if the horse is prone to eat it to excess.
Oat Straw is palatable and more expensive. It quickly becomes saturated, which makes it the least suitable straw for bedding. It does give a clean and bright appearance and straw manure can be disposed of more easily than other types of materials. In a good harvest year it can also be cheap. Some horses may eat the straw and it can cause several problems such as allergic coughing to the dust. In a bad harvest it can be quite expensive.
Chopped Straw can be wheat or rape straw and usually comes in heat shrunk bales. It is naturally absorbent and warm and usually dust extracted. Much easier to muck out than the above types of straw but still retains all the advantages. These products break down easily on the muck heap as well so can help reduce muck removal costs.
Wood Shavings are one of the most popular forms of bedding as they are very absorbent, suitable for deep litter and easy to muck out. It is important to buy wood shavings that have been specially produced for use as animal bedding. If you use alternative wood shavings, such as waste from a saw mill, you may find the shavings are sharp and contain rubbish. They can be expensive but are easy to muck out, easily stored and dust free or dust extracted bales are available.
Woodchip is again one of the better known and popular bedding types and one of the main reasons for this is its low cost. Although often it is not completely dust free, it does create a lot less than some other types of bedding. Woodchip creates a very stable bed which is ideal for a horse that is known to drag its bed around. Woodchip is not as absorbent as some other products on the market however this means the urine moves to the bottom of the bed, leaving the top layer dry for the horse to lie on.
Wood Pellets are known for their high absorbency levels and are made from compressed and heat treated wood fibres. They are extremely fast to decompose, therefore making muckheap management much easier. Wood pellets can create slightly more work when handling them as they need to be wet before they fluff up to full size. Wood pellets are also dust extracted making them also suitable for horses with dust allergies.
Shredded Paper has the same insulation qualities of straw or wood shavings but requires more cleaning and maintenance and is not suitable for deep litter. It is completely dust free and is an excellent choice for allergy-suffering horses. It’s easy to store, light to work with, quite absorbent, very warm in the winter and can be cheap. Disposal needs considering as it can be difficult to keep a tidy muck heap as shredded paper tends to blow around. The dye from the paper can sometimes mark a horse’s coat and it can ball up leaving a bare floor for the horse to lie on.
Cardboard has the same insulation qualities of straw or wood shavings. For grooming qualities it is excellent because it keeps horses cleaner than other bedding products and is recommended by the ILPH and veterinary practices. It is completely dust free and is an excellent choice for allergy-suffering horses. It’s easy to store, light to work with, absorbent, very warm in the winter and can be cheap. Again disposal needs to be considered.
Hemp is a natural fibre derived from the hemp plant. It can be used in a deep litter bed, and can be economical in the long run. It has good absorbency qualities, and makes a very soft bed. It is dust free and absorbs ammonia fumes, breaks down very quickly and is ideal for a deep litter bed. Hemp is initially expensive, it is not edible and may cause swelling to a horse’s stomach if ingested.
Rubber Matting. Initial costs can be high but running costs can be practically non-existent. It’s completely dust free and can be used with a bedding of your choice. It is very safe for your horse as the soft rubber reduces the risk of injury and it’s easy to muck out. If your horse is messy, then the no bedding option may make the horse and rugs dirty and may have a stronger odour. Some extra bedding may also be required to stop draughts and stables need to have good drainage if no bedding is used to absorb the urine. Rubber matting is very effective for horses on box rest or recovering from as injury as it provides a safe floor covering to help reduce the risk of injury or slipping as they get up and down.
Key points to remember
Evaluate and try different beddings to find the most suitable for you and your horse. Always check the quality of your bedding and ensure you have suitable storage to prevent compromising that quality. Always check your stable has suitable ventilation but remove the horse when mucking out if possible to lessen the exposure to dust. Ensure you keep your stable clean and dry, not forgetting the banks which should be turned and mucked out regularly to prevent the build up of ammonia or mold where you may not see it. Now is a good time to explore your options and check the supply levels of the various different types to ensure you will be able to get it throughout the winter. Asking your supplier to alert you if stock levels become low is also a wise move so you have time to source an alternative bedding or supplier if necessary.