The type of horse bedding you use will make all the difference when taking care of a horse, as being comfortable in their stable will help them get all the beauty sleep they need. All humans need a certain amount of sleep to stay healthy and to function, and the same rules apply to our horses. Although our equine friends may not need as many hours of sleep as us (4-5 hours in a 24-hour period), they do need at least 30mins of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that is only achieved through lying down — and providing a lovely bedding for your horse will help with this.
With many horses spending long periods of time stabled, especially in the winter, it is vital that they feel safe and comfortable enough to lay down in order to achieve their much-needed REM sleep. Research into equine sleep behaviour has found that the type and amount of bedding can have a major impact on a horse’s quality and amount of sleep. One study — The influence of bedding on the time horses spend recumbent — showed that horses prefer straw over shavings beds and that they spent three times longer in recumbent REM sleep on a straw bed than on a shavings bed. They also spend more time foraging through straw beds than other types of bedding, potentially reducing boredom.
As well as horse bedding type, proving the correct thickness of bedding is also important. Another study — The influence of shavings bed thickness on normal recumbent behaviour in horses — found that horses slept for longer on beds 10cm thick and less time on a bed 5cm thick, while another study — The effects of night light and bedding depth on equine sleep duration and memory consolidation — revealed that horses prefer a 15cm thick straw bed compared to a 5cm thick straw bed.
Choosing horse bedding
Each equine will have different requirements when it comes to choice of bedding type and what suits one horse won’t be right for another. Some horses are wetter and need a more absorbent material, while others may have respiratory problems and only dust-free will do.
“It’s important to consider your horse’s needs above all else when choosing bedding,” says Sue Hurford, a BHS level 4 senior yard manager and senior lecturer in equine science at Bridgend College. “For example, if a horse has respiratory or allergy problems, choose a totally dust-free bedding with high absorbency levels, such as paper, or dust-extracted shavings.”
Hungry horses maybe prone to eating their bed, and while eating small amounts of straw is not a problem for some horses, it may be better to choose anything other than straw to bed these horses down on so that you can control how much straw they eat. For horses who are messy and require a lot of fresh bedding, use a more affordable, high-absorbency bedding, such as wood pellets or hemp, to keep down costs as well as soak up urine effectively.
“You should also consider your yard’s muck heap options,” advises Sue. “If you use a muck trailer, go for a lightweight bedding that can be easily squashed down to save on the amount of times you have to empty it. If you have lots of space for a big muck heap, use bedding that will break down and compost well.”
Types of horse bedding
Wheat straw is a very affordable bedding and it can be used for both normal and deep litter beds. It is readily available, absorbent, warm and easy to muck out, plus it isn’t difficult to dispose of. However, it can contain dust and spores and so isn’t ideal for horses with respiratory issues or allergies.
Horses like to eat oat straw and it isn’t as absorbent as wheat straw. It can be relatively cheap following a good harvest, but like wheat straw it can also be dusty.
One of the more expensive bedding options, the biggest benefit of shavings is their absorbency and ease of use. Most brands are now dust-extracted, but it is worth double checking if your horse has a breathing or allergy issue. They take a long time to rot down, but can be burnt.
One of the cheaper options of bedding, paper has the same insulation and storage qualities as straw or wood shavings, but it requires more cleaning and maintenance. It isn’t good for deep litter beds due to its low absorbency rates and it can be tricky when grooming due to the ink from the print.
Wood pellets can absorb nine times more liquid than regular shavings and so are super absorbent, making them ideal for deep-litter beds. However, they can be time consuming to lay as they need wetting prior to use and they can be slippery when still dry. They can work out to be more cost-effective than other bedding types.
Hemp has a good level of absorbency and it can be used in deep litter beds, making it economical and it can used in deep litter beds, making it economical in the long run. It is dust free and breaks down very quickly, meaning that it is ideal for wet horses with respiratory problems. Bear in mind that it can be quite expensive initially and it can also be slippery when first laid down. Hemp tends to stick to rugs, manes and tails.
The idea of rubber matting is that it provides a padded base for horses to lie on, meaning that owners can use slightly less bedding, thus reducing costs, although the initial outlay of purchasing the matting can be expensive. Mats require require cleaning, including underneath, and they can be heavy to move.
Tips for saving money on horse bedding
Yard manager Sue Hurford suggests the following:
- Some beds, such as wood pellets, take time to set up initially, but you will spend less time mucking out in the long term and less bedding is removed at a time, as it is so absorbent and easy to use, meaning you need to buy less in the long run.
- Order bedding in bulk if you have enough storage, as it can save money per bag or bale and saves on delivery costs.
- Use the appropriate tools for mucking out the bedding type you choose, so that you don’t remove more bedding than you need to. Many companies sell their own tools made specifically for use with their bedding.
- Some bedding may seem cheap, but check out its contents. If you’re having to buy twice the number of bags because there is less bedding inside, it is false economy.
- Dust isn’t the only problem to consider, ammonia is too. Ammonia can cause respiratory issues in the long run, possibly leading to vet call outs. Choosing absorbent bedding, plus thorough mucking out and allowing the floor to dry once it has been disinfected is a worthwhile investment.
- Mixing different bedding types can sometimes work well. For example, using a base layer of wood pellets under a layer of straw. You then have an absorbent base layer with a warm, fluffy bed on top. It could also work out cheaper, depending on which bedding types you choose.
What horse bedding do riders choose and why?
‘Straw is cheaper and the beds are fluffier’
“At Headmore Stud, we use a mixture of straw and shavings, depending on each horses needs,” says dressage rider Alice Oppenheimer. “Every stable has rubber matting at the front so that the horses can either stand on the mats or on the bedding, but not the floor. Generally, straw is cheaper which is why those who can be bedded on straw are. Also, studies have shown that straw is a better bedding for many as horses can constantly graze if they want to, plus the beds are fluffier.”
‘I like big, thick shavings beds that encourage horses to lie down’
“We have rubber matting in the stables at Carl’s yard. We clean the mats every two weeks, pulling them out, hosing them and using a disinfectant powder,” says Alan Davies, groom to Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin. “I like big, thick shavings beds that encourage horses to lie down. We always have banks of about 1ft high. I don’t like them to be too big, because I don’t want to reduce the space the horses have in each box. We muck out fully every day. At home I keep my Shetlands in deep litter because of time and money, taking the wet out once a week.”
‘We mix the odd shavings bale in with wood pellets’
“We bed our horses on soaked wood pellets, but we do muck out properly every day,” says leading show horse producer Jayne Ross. “It is much more cost effective as the muck heap takes much longer to grow. We have rubber matting but I still like a good, thick bed, and we often mix in the odd bale of shavings to create more body for the banks.”
‘Straw is great for drying muddy legs’
“I love giving the horses a really deep bed of straw with large banks to encourage them to lie down,” says Scotland-based rider and former professional groom Liz Daniels. “I find that straw is also great for drying muddy legs and it seems to reduce the incidences of mud fever, as it allows legs to dry properly without having to wash and towel dry them.”
‘Wood pellets are so easy to use’
“I started using wood pellets because my pony drinks and wees a lot. They are so easy to use,” says rider Georgia Guerin. “You can skip out in seconds and there is so little waste. I don’t take the wet out every day — every so often I’ll dig out a quarter of the wet and then do another quarter the next time. I put some unactivated (unwanted) pellets in underneath, too, because then the bed becomes even more absorbent.”
Main image of a shavings bed: credit Shutterstock