Disclaimer: How much bedding to use in horse stalls is a hot topic, and one that is bound to draw many differing arguments. I can only tell you my own opinion, based on what I’ve learned in my experience of owning and caring for horses for the past thirty years or so.
More is More
Let’s get right to the point: I believe that a lot of people don’t use enough bedding. I’m not alone in this belief. It’s not something I made up. It’s a truth that’s been around for a very long time. It’s a truth that’s backed up by vets, farriers, and animal welfare experts.
Bedding (and enough of it) is important for a horse’s health and well-being.
A quick (and all-too-common) example:
A couple years ago, Sunny was having issues with recurring, awful, bleeding, scabbing-over knee wounds. I found them impossible to treat – just as they’d start to heal, she would injure them again, and the cycle would start all over.
We tried everything – knee boots, duct tape over gauze pads, every crazy idea you can imagine. In the end, the solution was actually pretty simple – we added more bedding. Luckily I was boarding at a stable with owners who took pride in providing the best possible care for each horse, even if it meant more effort or a change in routine. I realize not everyone is so lucky.
As soon as we upped the bedding factor, Sunny became a bit of a different horse. She was more relaxed, she spent more time wandering happily around her paddock, and she even started putting some weight back on. All because she felt comfortable lying down again.
Another case in point:
I boarded my old gelding, Nico, at a barn for a little while that didn’t use nearly enough bedding. He developed sores on his pasterns and lower legs that would open, then scab over, then open, then scab over. I couldn’t figure it out.
Then one day, while I was watching Nico have a pee (I know – only a horse person would think it’s normal to watch a horse have a pee), I figured out the problem. The urine was actually splashing back up onto his lower legs, because there wasn’t enough bedding on the floor to absorb it.
I spoke to the barn owners about adding more bedding. They refused, because they felt that it would cost more, and take their stable hands too long to clean out. I tried to explain that if you muck out properly, you actually end up using less bedding with a deeper bed, but they did not believe me and weren’t interested in trying.
Solution: I moved to a different barn, where the barn owner shared my “more is more” philosophy about bedding. The sores on Nico’s legs disappeared within a month of the move.
Reasons Why People Skimp on Bedding:
EXCUSE # 1: You can save money by using less bedding
TRUTH: You actually end up using as much or even more bedding when you skimp on your horse’s bed; reason being that there’s not enough there to absorb all of the urine, so it spreads out more, soaking more bedding. The result is that you end up having to strip the stall more often, wasting more bedding.
With a deeper bed, the urine doesn’t go all the way to the floor. You can move the top layer of bedding, take out the pee spot, fluff up the bedding below it (the part the urine didn’t reach), and move on. Once you learn how to properly muck out a deep bed, you will find yourself wasting far less bedding.
I barn sat for two weeks in a stable where the owners preferred to use a very thin layer of bedding. While they were away, I did an experiment. I mucked out and bedded in their horse the way that they preferred, while caring for my horse in the way that I prefer. The first thing I did was add two more bags of shavings to my horse’s stall right off the top. I also added a bag of shavings to their horse’s stall (since he was practically standing on the ground and I wanted him to have enough to at least absorb the pee).
At the end of the two weeks, I had added one full bag of shavings to my mare’s stall. She had a lovely, deep, clean-smelling bed for a total of three bags (including the two I added at the beginning of the experiment). The barn owner’s horse stood on his skimpy bed, and I had ended up having to add a fresh bag of bedding twice during the two weeks, because there was no depth to soak up the urine, meaning it spread out more and I had to remove more wet bedding from the stall. So he had a meager bed, he and his blankets smelled of urine, and lying down couldn’t have been nearly as comfortable – for the same amount of bedding, three bags in total.
EXCUSE # 2: It takes longer to muck out stalls if there’s more bedding in them
TRUTH: Okay, maybe a little. But it doesn’t take much longer if you know how to properly muck out a stall.
I take special issue with this particular excuse for the following reason: why is how long it takes you to muck out more important to you than your horse’s health and comfort?
I worked in a large stable through much of my twenties as a full-time stable hand. Meaning each and every day started with mucking out and bedding in about twenty stalls. So I got pretty good at it. The barn owner liked for us to use a decent amount of bedding (much to my glee), and she also liked the stalls to be very clean.
When I started working there, it would literally take me all day to do my twenty stalls. I was averaging about twenty-five minutes per stall (mucking out, bedding in, dumping/scrubbing/refilling the water buckets, and sweeping up the aisle floor as I went). Within two weeks I had that time down to fifteen minutes per stall, which meant the barn was completely done by noon.
So I have to ask – is fifteen minutes a day really too much time to make your horse’s stall a comfortable, clean place for them to rest?
EXCUSE # 3 – I have stall mats so I don’t need to use much bedding
TRUTH: stall mats are not the be-all and end-all of horse comfort. Mats are cold, they do not absorb urine, and while they do give an added bit of comfort to your horse’s legs if you’ve got cement floors in your barn, they still cannot prevent one of the biggest problems with using too-little bedding, which is that there’s not enough to soak up the urine (which in turn causes two issues – urine splashing up on your horse’s legs, and that awful smell of ammonia getting into your horse’s lungs).
I think stall mats are fine if they’re installed properly, fit the stall well, and are all one piece – because nothing grosses me out more than peeking underneath the stall mats where they meet in the middle, and seeing just how much urine is trapped under there. It becomes a haven for rot and mold, which doesn’t do your horse’s lungs (or your barn) any favours.
So, what’s the right amount of bedding to use?
Well, really that’s up to you (and your horse). I grew up in Pony Club, and had the absolute privilege of having, as one of my most memorable instructors, a lovely lady from Ireland named Mrs. George. She told me that when she was a girl, the horses in her family’s stable stood in lovely, fresh bedding up to their knees. I remember thinking “what lucky horses!”, and that image has never left me.
Now, to be fair, my horses aren’t in bedding up to their knees. But I do make sure to have a at least a good six to eight inches of bedding in their stalls. We have a shedrow stable, with stalls opening up directly to the paddock. The stall doors are never closed, so our horses can choose whether to be in or out at all times. It’s been my experience that the deeper the stalls are bedded, the more time the horses spend resting and/or lying down in them (this is of the utmost importance to me, with two senior citizens over the age of twenty-five in the barn).
Six to eight inches of bedding ensures the following things:
- sufficient urine absorbance (therefore limited lung-damaging ammonia in the air)
- proper support of horses’ joints not only when standing but also when lying down and rolling
- urine will soak into the bedding rather than splash up onto your horse’s legs causing discomfort and even wounds
- and your horse will be standing and sleeping in a warm, comfortable bed
How much bedding do you like to use? Does your horse agree with you?