Do you know horses sleep standing up? Yes, they can take a pretty decent power nap upright on all fours.
However, like the rest of us, our equine companions benefit most from a quality kip in the horizontal position. And we naturally want to provide them with the best sleeping environment to do so.
When choosing their bedding we have to be sure we’re not harming them more than helping. That’s because not all horse bedding is made equal. Neither are all horses. Our animals are susceptible to allergies, sensitivities, and anxieties. And sometimes they’re just plain quirky.
Quirks aside, we break down seven popular bedding materials to help you identify the best and safest bedding type for your horse.
Bedding Material Check List
The various bedding alternatives come with their pros and cons.
What are the most important considerations when choosing the best bedding for your horses?
The following factors should all be on the checklist:
- Comfort – as horse owners we all want our animal companions to get a quality night’s sleep.
- Ease of cleaning – a hygienic and overall ‘good housekeeping’ environment is promoted when stalls can be efficiently and easily mucked-out.
- Absorption – if bedding absorbs urine and faeces it’s easier and quicker to clean out soiled materials.
- Dust factor – excessive dust is likely to cause irritation and even lead to respiratory problems.
- Health and safety – we need to guard against products with toxic compounds like some paper products containing glue residue, or some cedars and black walnut woods that are toxic and harmful to horses.
- Palatability – we have to think about how tasty the bedding is to the horse because we don’t want our bedding investment to be a midnight snack!
- Composting – horses typically need 8 to 15 pounds of fresh bedding every day which means you have to think about disposing of a lot of used, soiled animal bedding; compost is an obvious natural solution in this regard.
- Cost and availability
Let’s explore the top bedding options in more detail.
1. Straw Bedding
Don’t hit the hay, hit the straw!
A fresh, deep, chopped straw bed is a lovely place to lay a weary head. Horses don’t usually need much encouragement to bed down on such a plush material.
Straw is readily available, reasonably priced, and comparatively easy to muck out.
Straw is also the bedding of choice for foaling, particularly when compared to wood products. Lying on shavings or wood chips, the new wet foal gets covered with the chips and the mare has a harder time licking her baby.
Straw is harvested from cereal grains including barley, oats, and wheat straw.
For horse bedding purposes it’s vital to understand the difference:
- Barley straw often comes with prickly ears that potentially cause irritation or worse
- Oat straw is the most absorbent, but also the most tasty to horses
- Wheat straw is comfortable and is most easily available but is also the dustiest
A downside to straw is that it can be too dusty. You want to seek out straw with the dust extracted. Be willing to pay a bit extra for the peace of mind it gives you and the peaceful sleep it gives your horse.
If you’ve mucked out straw bedding you will have noticed that it is not the most absorbent since urine often seeps through to the floor.
- Breaks down easily
- Good for foaling
- There are chopped straw products with the dust extracted which is a big positive
- Bulky bales take up storage space
- Can be dusty
- Not super-absorbent
It’s fair to say that straw bedding is still the favoured traditional bedding option, though there are plenty of other bedding materials available to get into.
2. Wood Shavings
Wood shavings can be an excellent choice for your horse, particularly if you have a spacious, well-ventilated stable.
Wood shavings provide sweet cushioning to promote comfort during rest and sleep.
They also deliver good absorbency which helps to keep the stall clean and reduce odour. Wood shavings are generally easy to find and their wrapped bales are convenient to use and store.
Wood shavings may be dusty, so proper ventilation is crucial to prevent respiratory issues. The dust problem is worsened if sawdust is included in the bedding mix.
Shavings are less prone to mould, but usually require more frequent replacement compared to straw.
Caution: Some woods contain natural toxins. Black walnut is flagged as being very dangerous if ingested by horses. Black walnut shavings or bedding can cause laminitis, a painful and potentially debilitating condition. Some cedars are also bad. Always investigate and check the source of your shavings.
- Highly absorbent bedding
- Comparatively cost-effective
- Dusty- especially cheap variants
- Can be toxic
- Not very compostable
3. Wood Pellets
Wooden pellets have gained popularity for several reasons, including their absorbency and easy cleaning.
These pellets are made from compressed, heat-dried wood or sawdust.
By just adding water they break down and provide a soft and comfortable surface for your horse to lie down and rest on. Good-quality wood pellets are dust-free, making them a great choice for horses with respiratory sensitivities or allergies.
They are also economical in the sense that they expand in volume when moistened, allowing you to use less bedding overall.
Wood pellets are a sustainable option if your supplier or manufacturer sources from forests where there is a programme to replace the timber removed.
- Good absorbency which makes for a dry bed area that supports your horse’s comfort and hygiene
- Dust-free; provided they are derived from good quality wood such as spruce pine
- Composts easily
- Not palatable; pellets look and smell like wood so most horses won’t be tempted to snack on their bedding
- Easy to clean because less bedding is wasted, reducing the muck heap
- Dusty- cheap wood pellets made from compressed sawdust will be dusty when they break down
- Slippery- can be slippery in pellet form, particularly cheap versions
4. Hemp And Flax Bedding Material
Flax and hemp bedding materials are made from the chopped stems of flax and hemp plants. This bedding material is available in wrapped bales that can be easily stored.
Flax and hemp have gained definite appeal in recent times, not least because they are eco-friendly. Both products are biodegradable and considered a sustainable resource.
Hemp and flax boast a low dust content and our horses generally aren’t tempted to eat this bedding material.
The products are light and easy to work with and muck out.
- Decent absorption
- Generally unpalatable
- Easy cleaning
- Composts rapidly
- More expensive than paper, wood, and straw
- Product quality can vary
- Flax in particular can be hard to digest if eaten
5. Paper And Cardboard Bedding Material
Various paper products are often used for bedding. Indeed, paper has properties that make it quite good for napping on.
Supplied paper bedding is typically made from shredded newspaper, magazines, cardboard, and other unwanted printed matter.
A decent paper product is absorbent, not generally palatable, and pretty cheap. That said, the absorbency can vary greatly depending on the makeup of the paper mix.
I’ve improvised a comfortable lay from cardboard waste and disassembled cardboard boxes on a few occasions. If you’re not bedding a stall too deeply and are able to keep on top of the maintenance, paper materials can work. But I’ve always considered this option a temporary solution.
For one thing, buying cheap bales of paper bedding can be ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish’. With a light paper mix, you’ll need a fair few bales to create a deep thick bed.
Also when paper becomes wet and mulchy (which it will), the pretty ‘linen’ deteriorates fairly rapidly.
And picture this: your gorgeous grey standing up in the morning looking even greyer because she’s smudged with newsprint! True story.
- Not palatable
- Fairly absorbent
- Can be economical if you source a cheap supply
- Prone to blow around the stables
- Can attract mould in a humid, wet environment
- Composts well, but is not highly sought after as compost
- May not be as economical as advertised
6. Peat Moss Bedding
Many horse owners swear by peat moss because of the comfort it delivers. This product, which comes in bags, is made from partially decomposed moss.
Peat moss is a popular soil nutrient used by gardeners; if there is a garden centre nearby you should be able to tap a fairly regular supply.
Its ease of composting makes it an excellent bedding to use if disposal is a concern.
Another advantage is it doesn’t break down into the kind of spores that cause breathing difficulties for horses.
Peat moss is very absorbent, easy to muck out, and can be used with all types of stable floors.
It is however dark-coloured, so again perhaps not the best mix for horses with light and white coats.
- Easy composting
- Fairly pricey and may be difficult to obtain
- Grey horses might appear dirty after lying down on it
7. Rubber Matting
When considering bedding materials, it’s worth thinking about rubber matting.
Good quality rubber bedding materials are designed to be thick and sturdy, providing cushioning and support.
Rubber mats for horse bedding are typically made from recycled rubber or synthetic rubber compounds and offer nice traction.
Laying interlocking rubber mats on the stall floor provides a solid surface, reducing the risk of slipping and injury and protecting your horse’s hooves and limbs.
Rubber makes mucking out a pretty straightforward affair too. Mats can be swept, hosed down, or power-washed to remove dirt, hair, urine, and manure. Regular cleaning helps prevent the buildup of bacteria and odours.
Despite its advantages, rubber matting is best employed when combined with another bedding material. A layer of straw or shavings over the matting creates a more pleasing and absorbent bed.
Some horses don’t like to urinate on hard surfaces, so adding another bedding element helps to get around this issue.
- Easy to clean
- Hygienic if well maintained
- Known to be slip-resistant
- Durable. Quality rubber mat products are fairly resistant to wear and tear, moisture, and the impact of hooves, making them a long-lasting bedding option
- More expensive outlay upfront
- Lacks an inviting look and feel. Can feel cold
- Lack of natural cushioning. While firm and supportive, rubber matting lacks the natural more tactile cushioning provided by bedding materials like straw and shavings
- Environmental consideration. When it comes to disposal, recycling options may be limited in some areas, leading to the mats being sent to landfills.
How deep should horse bedding be?
For adult horses, good bedding comprises a comfortable covering of at least 15cm (6 inches) across the entire stall floor.
What size should a horse’s stall be?
The ideally recommended stall size for a 1,000-pound horse is 12 feet x 12 feet.
Can sand be used for horse bedding?
Horses are prepared to lie down on sand and sand is sometimes used for their bedding. It isn’t very popular because it makes the horse’s coat gritty, and sand tends to get hard when it compresses. It is however easy to clean.
What causes ammonia in horses’ stables?
Ammonia gas is a by-product of horses excreting urine and faeces. Ammonia is the chemical that causes the odour in dirty stalls. Ammonia levels can be managed and controlled by using absorbent horse bedding materials like wood shavings and pellets, peat moss, and quality paper.