Not Your Grandmother’s Bedding: Horse Bedding Alternatives
In search of a new type of bedding for your horse? Check out these different options.
10+ alternatives to consider when bedding down your horse’s stall
Not so long ago (for some of us, anyway), the mention of stall bedding brought to mind just one image: a warm, deep—but not so absorbent—cushion of golden straw that rustled with the horse’s every movement. And although straw (most commonly the unused stems of barley, oat, rye, or wheat crops) has historically sufficed for both horse (and even human) bedding, times are starting to change. There are many, many more bedding options available for your horse’s stall.
The Ideal Horse Bedding
The ideal bedding is:
- Conveniently disposable
- Dust- and allergen-free
- Easy to remove manure and urine from
- Environmentally friendly (produced and shipped with minimal environmental impact and compostable)
- Readily available
- Sanitary (free of pathogens and other harmful substances)
- Storage-space saving
- Unappetizing to horses
Over the years, the list of bedding materials has grown to include a host of products that offer varying degrees of each of these qualities. Some are widely available, while others are byproducts of local or regional agriculture and industry and, so, are more geographically limited.
Traditional, widely available bedding materials include sand, shavings, sawdust, and pelleted wood products that fluff up quickly when walked on and/or lightly sprayed with water, forming a cushion from which caretakers can pick out soiled and wet spots easily with a manure fork. New materials can be added as needed, cutting down on the frequency of labor-intensive stall stripping.
Read on to learn about more options you might already know about and use, as well as some that might be new to you. Some can easily fly solo, and others work best when combined—either as a base layer or mixed in—with one of the more traditional bedding materials.
Made from shredded coconut husk and fiber, coir is very absorbent. So absorbent, in fact, it’s also used on toxic (oil, etc.) spills. Coir decomposes quickly and is dust-free and unpalatable to horses. Coir reduces the odors and air contaminants associated with dustier beddings, as well as the excessive moisture associated with less absorbent materials.
Online reviewers, however, report that when the raw fiber is baled, it’s very difficult to spread, making disk and pellet forms more desirable. Other downsides are where its sourced (tropical climates where coconuts grow) and the consequent expense of import.
Found in agricultural regions everywhere, but most commonly in the Midwest, corn cobs and stems make an outstanding bedding if they are crushed, ground, or shredded. Online reviewers say this option is softer, much less dusty, and more absorbent than wood pellets. “Clumpability” results in quicker stall cleaning and less product waste. And reviewers note that although your horse might nibble on the bedding initially, he’ll usually quit after a day or so.
One ground product compacted into pellet form composts in about six months, which compares to wood shavings, which can take up to two years. Evidenced by an online video, at a ratio of 1 cup of water to 1 cup of product, the corn cob pellets absorb 99% of water in 34 seconds, whereas wood pellets, coarse-ground corn cobs, and wood shavings didn’t fully absorb the water even after 50 seconds, 1 minute 10 seconds, and 1 minute 25 seconds, respectively. A 40-pound bag costs about $6.
The obvious problem with using hay for bedding is that your horse is bound to eat it. You also lose the ability to monitor his feed intake.
Other than the nutritional factor, hay is pretty much equal to straw in its bedding qualities, but you can bet it’ll be more expensive.
Although hemp is a cannabis plant, the type used for bedding is called industrial hemp and differs from the marijuana plant in its almost-nonexistent THC content, as well as in its usefulness for commercial and industrial applications. However, many states continue to prohibit growing hemp for any use. In 2015 eight states allowed hemp growing: Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont, and 20 more were creating or revising their hemp-growing laws.
Hemp is more highly renewable than timber products. Arch Kingsley of Long Leaf Stables, in Camden, South Carolina, has used hemp bedding, made by shredding the “hurd,” or inner layer of stalk, for more than a year. He says it’s nearly dust-free, very absorbent (manufacturers say it can sponge up about four times its weight), and makes a superb bedding for his horses. Kingsley also attributes his horses’ clean respiratory bills of health to his hemp-bedded stalls.
The bedding is soft, lightweight, and unpalatable, and although it’s more expensive up front due to being sourced primarily from Europe and Canada, Kingsley says it lasts a lot longer than other bedding types.
“It does require a finer technique when mucking a stall,” he says. “We pick the piles and always remove the wet spot. But with hemp, you can take the less saturated material and mix it back in with the drier areas. If you use it conservatively, it’s more economical. And it’s low in acid (so has a more balanced pH) and quick to compost. It supports the health of the horses and the stable.”
The cost of hemp bedding varies from $23 per 33-pound bag to $510 for a 30-bag pallet ($17/bag), plus shipping. Half and full truckloads of 480 and 1,000 bags are also available.
Chopped mature leaves are pretty much free and can make a satisfactory bedding, but they can become compacted and heavy when wet. Also, be sure not to use any part of black walnut trees, as they’re toxic to horses.
Shredded paper products, including corrugated cardboard and phone books, are lightweight, economical, highly absorbent, and allergen-, dust-, and odor-free. They’re available bagged or baled, and horses won’t eat them. However, paper is highly flammable. The other downside is the possibility of ink rubbing off on lighter-colored horses and on stall and stable walls. Although many inks these days are nontoxic vegetable dyes, cleanup can be an issue, as can the blowability factor in windy locations when dry and the product’s weight when wet.
On the plus side, paper’s high carbon content tends to reduce odors, and paper composts readily. It’s widely available in most areas. Cost varies according to the product’s source and processing.
Reviews are mixed on this natural product, but most agree that peat’s time as horse bedding has come and gone. Natural in this case doesn’t equate with environmentally friendly; peat comprises the lower layers of living sphagnum moss (like what you buy at the craft store to line the wire plant containers on your patio) that has decomposed underground in wet, boggy conditions for thousands of years. The living moss has to be scraped away to mine the peat, and doing so damages the wetlands the moss grows in and disrupts the bog’s biodiversity.
Peat moss is also low on the absorbency scale, and its dark color makes it difficult to differentiate wet and dirty spots from unsoiled areas. Some users report a high incidence of hoof problems with peat use.
On the upside, peat reviewers say it’s low in dust, minimizing respiratory issues, and it cuts down on odors. It’s cushy for your horses, and its fine fibers readily compost—and most any gardener would be eager to take your waste for fertilizer. Three cubic feet costs about $12 at home improvement stores.
Wheat straw compressed into pellets is reportly twice as absorbent as paper bedding products, absorbing 300% of its weight in moisture. Users gave its dustiness mixed online reviews. It’s steam-processed at 195$deg;F, reducing bacteria, molds, and yeast and is also packaged for small animals. It costs about $9 per 30 pounds.
Reused Composted Bedding
Researchers have recently documented improvements in allergy- and respiratory-related conditions in horses bedded on reused composted bedding. “It’s a fairly new concept,” says Hannah Mueller, DVM, of Cedarbrook Veterinary Clinic, in Snohomish, Washington. “We were fortunate enough to use it on trial, and my hope is that it gains in popularity.”
The developer of reused composted bedding uses several types of systems, depending on a facility’s size and needs. Moisture and aeration, which are composting fundamentals, produce heat that destroys harmful microbes and within two weeks turns waste products—whether food or agricultural wastes—into reusable compost that makes excellent bedding, says Mueller.
She studied three hospitalized horses: one with bedding-caused hives, one with a tracheotomy due to an upper airway obstruction, and one with equine asthma (historically referred to as recurrent airway obstruction, or RAO, or heaves). All three improved when the bedding in their stalls was changed from pelleted wood to reused composted bedding.
The horse with the tracheotomy produced significantly less mucous, and his condition improved greatly within a week. Mueller saw the same scenario in the horse with equine asthma. “The composted bedding kept the dust down and improved breathing, keeping airways from constricting and causing an asthma attack,” she says.
“It was important anecdotal evidence, and I’d like to see it in a double-blind study to prove the results we had,” she adds. “Startup costs are high, but once installed, the system saves money over time. It’s more environmentally friendly and beneficial for the horses because it holds a level of moisture in the bedding that keeps dust and allergens down.”
Seed Hulls and Plant Byproducts
The thin seed coats (as opposed to hard shells or pods) and other byproducts from cottonseed, oats, peanuts, rice, wheat, and other agricultural crops are generally available in the geographic area in which they’re grown (rice on the West Coast and in the Southwest; wheat in the Northwest and Great Plains; peanuts in the South). Mixing the lighter hulls with a more absorbent bedding keeps the surface dry, while moisture drains into the heavier layer and can be lifted out. The combination composts relatively slow, however.
Online reviewers say rice hulls dry out quickly (so on the flip side, they aren’t super absorbent); are easy to use because the dry hulls readily fall through the muck rake; result in fewer hoof problems; and as a bonus, put a great shine on horses’ coats. However, horses reportedly like to eat rice hulls (so, an impaction worry) unless mixed with a less palatable material or soiled.
One example of a seed hull product, made from rice hulls, contains diatomaceous earth and montmorillonite clay to increase absorbency and combat odors and flies and costs $9-14 per 50-pound (6 cubic feet) bag.
When evaluating various types of bedding for your particular horse(s) and operation, keep in mind that the less product used, the less you’ll have to purchase, store, move, and dispose of. To select the best bedding for your (and your horse’s) needs, evaluate those factors along with the health risks and benefits of all the products available in your area.