Let's Talk About Hemp. And No, It's Not What You Think.

by Leslie Threlkeld

Let's Talk About Hemp. And No, It's Not What You Think.

When we think of stable bedding, we typically think of fluffy piles of shavings. And when we think about hemp, well, we all have a different first thought (here's looking at you, marijuana afficianodos). But when it comes to bedding, hemp is the new kid on the block, and it's making a big impression - hemp bedding may be a healthier alternative for some horses, and is an eco-friendly option for environmentally conscious horse owners. As supply increases due to relaxed restrictions on American farmers, hemp bedding is rising right alongside its many other useful forms as the new go-to in the US. Roll that up in your pipe and smoke it.

Hemp as animal bedding, made from the core of the industrial hemp plant - which is 100% non-psychoactive and does not contain any of the properties found in its recreational cousin - is reported to be less dusty than other bedding types and have phenomenal absorbency, reducing odor for a fresher smelling barn. Low dust means healthier lungs, and a fresh smelling barn means happier horses and humans. Not too shabby.

Josh Davison, BVetMed, MRCVS, is an assistant veterinary surgeon at Rossdales in Newmarket, England. He explains, “We know that from other species—the work is primarily human health based—that fine dust is negative for respiratory health. Although the research done on horses is not as well developed, there have been similar links to dust impacting horses’ respiratory health.”

Respiratory systems irritated by dust may cause “coughing and subtle losses of performance” according to Dr. Davison. Higher dust levels have also been associated with ‘dirty’ windpipe scopes in racehorses, which isn't great for animals who are earning a living as athletes.

“However it must be stressed that some horses cope remarkably well with stables that other horses struggle with,” says Dr. Davison, who took part in an investigation of fine airborne dust levels in local stables bedded with wood shavings, straw, and paper. “Unsurprisingly many factors—bedding, ventilation, stables design, et cetera—influenced the fine dust levels.”

Basically, your horse may be fine with traditional bedding, but also might benefit from less dust. But being dust-less isn't the only thing that hemp has going for it.

Although the initial cost of hemp bedding is higher than shavings, the less frequent cleaning requirements may help horse owners save time and money in the long run.

Ellie Riley, a former professional groom and stable manager, was first introduced to hemp bedding while boarding at a small private barn where the owner used hemp for her elderly horse with heaves. Her own horse was turned out in a large field but always had access to his stall. He generally came in to eat and preferred to urinate in his stall rather than in the field. Thanks for that, horse.

“I was using pelleted bedding at the time, but really liked the idea of hemp being easier to compost and more sustainable as a bedding choice,” Ellie says. “I pick my stall daily and, especially since my horse came in to urinate, the absorbency and lack of odor in the bedding was my favorite thing about it. It doesn’t quite ‘clump’ the moisture like the pelleted bedding did, but it also doesn’t allow the urine to pool and spread under the bedding like straw and shavings.”

Ellie would start with four bags in a 12x14 stall and another bag every two weeks. She would also toss in a muck shovel full daily to compensate for what was removed with the wet spot. “In general, I bought about four bags a month.”

This system worked well for Ellie because her horse was out most of the time and used the stall very little. However, a horse who is stabled more often or walks the stall and churns up bedding would likely require more product, and more product equals more money. While costs vary, for Ellie the difference was $14 per bag of hemp bedding versus $6 per bag of shavings, and the cubic feet of coverage per bag of hemp is generally less than that of a bag of shavings.

“In my case, the hemp was fantastic because even though it was expensive to start, I used very little throughout the month, and then got to use it again to fill my garden beds. If I were running a small operation, say ten stalls or less, I would definitely choose hemp over shavings or straw to cut down on dust and keep things super tidy,” Riley says.

So it's a little more expensive and doesn't cover quite as much ground, but the benefits are still there. Less dust, save the planet, be on trend - your horse's lungs and the pine trees might thank you. Yet, your wallet might not, so it's a toss-up. How do you know if hemp is right for you?

“There are so many variables involved,” Dr. Davison says. “Cost, how the stables are bedded and mucked out, ventilation, et cetera mean that the ‘best’ bedding needs to be found for the individual owner and horse(s).”

Hemp bedding has long been a staple product in barns all over Europe. Although processed hemp is legal to import, hemp products are less common in the United States due in large part to America’s complicated history with cannabis (Reefer Madness, anyone?).

First, it's important to understand that hemp is not marijuana. While both are part of the cannabis family, they are not the same plant. Marijuana contains high levels of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and is used for medicinal and recreational purposes. Hemp, on the other hand, contains no THC and will not cause psychological effects when ingested. It has more practical uses such as dietary supplements, food, textiles, biodegradable plastics and, of course, animal bedding.

Despite the clear differences between hemp and marijuana, the former — once a profitable cash crop — became illegal to grow when the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was signed into law. Reestablishing hemp’s reputation as marijuana’s more industrious, non-psychoactive family member has been an uphill battle ever since.

Recent legislation, beginning with Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014, which defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana, eased the restrictions of industrial hemp cultivation at the state level. Just last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) introduced the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, S. 2667 which, if passed, will federally legalize the commercial cultivation of industrial hemp and remove it from the Controlled Substances Act.

American Hemp, LLC of Winston Salem, North Carolina, is a supplier of industrial hemp for the manufacture of numerous applications from building materials to paper to animal bedding for horses, chickens, and small animals. The company, founded in 2010, also works to promote and support American farmers in the cultivation of hemp.

“The local and state government in North Carolina has done a great job in establishing rules and regulations that help foster and establish the industry in North Carolina. Other states have been successful at helping incubate the U.S. industry,” explains American Hemp LLC.

Hemp farmers and manufacturers are hopeful for a federal resolution although there has been increased support from state governments. “In general, there is a trend towards the usage of biological materials and hemp will be one tool to help grow the bio-economy.” American Hemp says. “The goal is to increase the industrial hemp infrastructure and market in the U.S., North America, and abroad.”

Ellie Riley only stopped using hemp bedding when she moved her horse to a facility where it wasn’t carried at the local feed store. Accessibility to the product for the average horse owner is definitely a challenge at this point as you might not find it at most boutique tack and feed stores. Buying in bulk and having the product delivered is an option more likely to be attractive for larger barns but comes with a higher price tag when factoring for shipping. However, with increased cultivation across the country and the potential of the new Hemp Farming Act, hemp bedding for horses may soon become easy to come by. As the trend grows, your horses can enjoy access to a dust-free and absorbent home, but don't worry, you won't find them eating a large pizza while giggling away to an episode of Family Guy.

Written by Leslie Threlkeld

Having grown up on horseback, Leslie Threlkeld, Managing Editor at NOËLLE FLOYD, treasures her career in the equestrian industry as a writer, photographer, and eventing technical delegate. Leslie thrives on frequent travel but never tires of returning home to the serene mountains of North Carolina.