General Horse Bedding Issues

Following is a description of common issues with Horse Bedding.

Bedding Rot (Fungus)

Horse bedding is made from natural materials and consequently will rot if exposed to damp. In particular, they will develop fungi which can cause illness if eaten (many horses eat some of their bedding) or breathed in.  To avoid this:

  • Bedding should always be stored in a dry and well ventilated location
  • Bedding should not be stored direct on a concrete floor, as the cold concrete tends to cause condensation, leading to fungus. In particular, straw should not be stored on a concrete floor, especially when it is freshly cut, as it will still be losing moisture. The best flooring is wooden pallets (often available free from stores, especially construction materials stores), as this allows air to circulate under the bedding, preventing dampness.
  • If bedding does become wet, it should be used immediately (e.g. within 48 hours) or disposed of. 
  • Bedding which has signs of fungus (e.g. visible fungus, a moldy smell, or being stuck together) or of having been exposed to wet, should not be used and should be disposed of. If the bedding arrives in this condition, you should ask for your money to be refunded, as the goods are 'unfit for purpose' under the trade goods act.

Horses Eating Bedding

Horses will often eat some of their bedding, either out of hunger or boredom, resulting in three potential issues:

  • In the case of overweight horses, this is an additional source of food, resulting in further weight gain. Furthermore, if one tries to reduce the horse's weight (through exercise and/or food restriction), the amount of bedding they eat tends to increase, reducing the effectiveness of any weight reduction program.
  • Most bedding materials are difficult to digest, which can lead to various issues with the digestive system, such as colic. While most horses can eat some bedding without problems, it does on occassion lead to illness and in rare cases can even be fatal.
  • Sports horses are normally given a special diet, high in grain and relatively low in bulk, partly to reduce the enlarged abdomens associated with eating bulky food (such as grass). A substantial consumption of bedding can conflict with the objectives of this special diet.

Reducing the amount of time which a horse is in its box,or providing more stimulation (e.g. exercise or greater access to fields), will in some cases reduce this issue.

There are chemicals which one can spray on bedding to give it an unpleasant smell and taste, to discourage the horses from eating it. In our experience this works for some horses but not all. In the case of greedy horses which will eat the bedding dispite the spray, you have the problem not only of the bedding being injested but also the chemical as well.

If a horse eats only edible bedding (e.g. straw) but does not eat inedible bedding (e.g. wood pellets), then the solution may be to change the bedding to an inedible type (e.g. wood based). However, some horses will eat substantial amounts of their bedding regardless of the type of bedding, in which case it may be better to have then on an edible bedding rather than risk the increased possibility of colic associated with consumption of inedible bedding.

Dust

Many types of bedding can be dusty. In particular, depending on how it was bailed and under what conditions, straw is sometimes quite dusty. This dust can get into a horse's lungs, reducing short-term performance and risking long-term damage. Some horses are very sensitive to dust and need to be kept in dust-free boxes, while others are not bothered unless the dust levels are extraordinary. If your bedding is dusty and your horse starts coughing, you may need to change bedding.

This is often a serious issue with sawdust and sometimes an important issue with wood shavings.

Consistency

One of the major issues with straw is that quality varies greatly. One bale may be fine and the other may be unsuitable (e.g. dust, mold, fungus, poisonous weeds). While it is true that some suppliers are better than others, even with the best suppliers there may be the occassional bad bale. Furthermore, in some years (e.g.very wet years where the straw rots, very dry years where it is dusty) it can be difficult to get quality bedding. For the experienced and organised stable manager this is not an issue. However, inexperienced horse owners or stable employees may not be able to tell good straw from bad. In this case, manufactured bedding (e.g. wood pellets) may be a safer choice.

Poisonous Woods

A number of bedding products (e.g. sawdust, wood shavings) are produced from wood. If you purchase these products from a horse bedding company, they will have been produced from safe woods, but if you obtain them from a sawmill you will need to confirm that suitable woods have been used. In general, white softwoods are the best or cedar (some stall owners report that the smell of cedar helps reduce the fly population). Poisonous woods include black walnut (can cause acute founder, lameness, colic or breathing difficulties), bitterwood (can cause skin eruptions and inflammation) and yellow popular.

Foals

New born foals can suffocate or choke on certain types of bedding (e.g. a thick layer of wood shavings). During delivery times, many owners use straw instead.

Changing Bedding

Individual horses may be allergic or sensitive to certain types of bedding. Consequently, when changing bedding types one should closely observe the horse for some days to check for any problems. In particular, look for breathing problems (heavier or more difficult) or rashes.

Storage

Bedding should always be stored in a dry and well ventilated place. Stored bedding which becomes wet or has too much moisture can develop harmful fungus and bacteria, which can make horses ill, cause long term damage or even be fatal. If bedding has become wet, it needs to be used immediately or disposed of. If bedding shows any indications of having gone off (unusual smell, clumping, dusty coating) it should be disposed of.

High Absorbancy versus Low Absorbancy

The absorbency of bedding can also affect hoof health. A highly absorbent bedding is more likely to keep urine off the hooves, reducing associated hoof illness. It can also be useful if your fields are wet, as it will dry off the hooves better (constantly wet hooves are more prone to a variety of illnesses). However, if your fields are completely dry or if your horses spend almost off their time in boxes, some owners find that the hooves have inadequate moisture. In this case, one may wish to use a less absorbent bedding or to periodically water the hooves.

In other words, if your horses are often in wet conditions, consider using a high absorpancy bedding to prevent hoof rot, but if they are in dry conditions, consider using a low absorbancy bedding to prevent the hoofs from becoming excessively dry. The high absorbancy bedding types are the ones with an 'excellent' rating under 'urine absorption' on the bedding summary page.

Related to this are whether a horse is 'clean' (urinates and defecates in only one part of its box rather than all over) and whether it is 'quiet' (stays still, as opposed to a 'box walker'). Owners of 'clean' and 'quiet' horses report much higher satisfaction overall with high-absorpancy bedding types than owners of 'dirty' and 'box walker' horses. The reason for this is that a dirty box-walker will tend to distribute its feces and urine throughout the bedding, which defeats the advantages of high-absorpancy bedding (reduced soiled bedding and ease of clean) and at the same time increases the cost (since a much larger amount needs to be disposed of). After all, if you end up having to throw out all the bedding, one might as well use the cheaper alternatives. Consequently, when choosing a bedding type, your horse's box behaviour can be an important consideration.

 Similarily, if you have muddy fields and the horses have access to enter and leave the box multiple times during the day, it may well be that the mud will soil all the bedding over the day. In such cases, as one may have to throw out all the bedding each day, a cheaper low-absorpancy bedding may be more suitable.