Choosing the Right Bedding for a Horse


1. Drainage Bedding

This type of bedding allows fluid to pass through it and drain away. There must be an adequate drainage system on the stable floor to remove the fluid. Straw is a type of drainage bedding.

A disadvantage of straw as a bedding is that some horses will eat it. This is not dangerous in itself, but does become a problem if soiled straw is eaten, as parasites are ingested and digestion can be disrupted. It is also a nuisance if the horse is being fittened and the diet is being controlled. By eating the bedding the horse disrupts the feeding schedule and takes in too much roughage for peak fitness to be achieved.

All straw should be dry and sweet smelling. There should be no foreign material such as wire, mould or other plants. Old straw is better than new straw, provided it has been stored well, as it is drier and more elastic.

The four types of straw bedding are:

  • Wheat Straw      Wheat is the best bedding straw. It has a hard stem, so it does not flatten quickly under the weight of the horse. This is important for drainage. It is commonly used as a bedding material.
  • Oat Straw      Oat straw is softer than wheat straw and so inclined to be more absorbent. It is expensive as it has feeding value to cattle and horses.
  • Barley Straw      This is not a very good bedding straw because it has awns that irritate the skin and eyes. It also harbours lice more easily than other straws.
  • Rye Straw      This is very good bedding, being hard, but not easy to obtain.

2. Absorbent Bedding

Absorbent bedding soaks up moisture and retains it, so is good to use when the drainage system in the stable is poor.

Absorbent bedding may include:

  • Sawdust      Sawdust is inexpensive (and sometimes free if collected from timber yards). It's easy to manage and light to handle. Pine sawdust smells pleasant, and has both a deodorising and antiseptic effect. It is excellent bedding if the horse needs to be very fit. Unlike some bedding, it will not be eaten. A piece of board should be placed over the stable drain to stop sawdust clogging it. Any pieces of wood or other foreign matter should be removed from the sawdust. Sawdust is very heating for the feet and clogs the hooves if damp. It can also become maggoty. It is important that it is well managed.
  • Shavings      Shavings are less dusty and slightly less absorbent than sawdust, but otherwise these two materials share the same properties. It makes good bedding if droppings and wet patches are removed frequently. Shavings and sawdust are often used together. The sawdust should be used as a bottom layer as it is more absorbent and is dusty.
  • Peat Moss      This is a good form of bedding as it is warm, and few horses eat it. Another big advantage is there is less risk of fire. It needs to be raked over in the day to remain sweet. Wet and soiled patches should be removed frequently. It is usually very expensive, and the dark colour can give stables a gloomy appearance. When first put down, it can be very dusty, until moistened.
  • Sand      Sand drains well and can be good bedding in hot, dry climates. Unfortunately it can cause sand colic when eaten by the horse. Only washed river sand should be used as the salt in beach sand will encourage horses to lick and ingest their bedding.

3. Other Bedding Materials

  • Shredded Paper      This has good potential for bedding as it is absorbent and allows some drainage. It is completely dust free which is of benefit to chesty horses, and also prevents light coloured horses from picking up stable stains. It makes a warm bed but does not overheat. It is light to handle, and can be packaged in bales which are easier to move. It makes good use of waste paper (eg. newsprint), and the soiled bedding will rot down quickly to compost.


There are two types of beds for horses, as discussed below.

1. Complete Muck Out

In this system, all soiled and wet bedding is removed and replaced with clean material every day. It is costly for both fresh bedding and time. The advantages are that the stable floor is aired once a day, and soiled/wet material is less likely to build up unnoticed.

2. The Deep Litter or Continental System

In this system only wet bedding is removed daily. Droppings are shaken to the bottom of the bed and fresh bedding material is laid on top. The droppings and old bedding begin to decompose and give off heat so a warm bed is formed.

The deep litter bed is economical. Very little fresh bedding is added each day because so little is removed when mucking out. Mucking out does not take as long as the complete muck out system, although care must be taken to remove wet patches. It makes a very warm bed, but great care must be taken to prevent it overheating. Overheating occurs when too much urine is left in the bed. The urine quickens the composting process that is taking place, and thus the temperature of the bed is raised.

A big disadvantage is that a large amount of material accumulates in the stable, which has to be removed at least every six months. The material becomes compacted, and while a tractor or fork lift manages to lift it out easily, it is a back breaking task for grooms.
When deciding which system to use, several things should be thought of. If you're doing the mucking out yourself, and you are small or not very strong (or if you are not confident about managing a deep litter bed), it is far better to go for the complete muck out system. Although this will be more expensive than the deep litter system, and will take more time each morning, it is a small price to pay as you will be sure that the horse's bed is healthy.

The time of year must be thought about. In winter the warmth of the deep litter bed, plus the fact that less time is needed for mucking out, may be important. In summer, the complete muck out may help to reduce the number of flies and other biting insects.

Large establishments will find the deep litter system economical, particularly if they have a tractor to handle the heavy work of completely removing beds every six months.

The experienced horse owner who is confident about managing the deep litter bed will also find it a good system. It will reduce the time spent mucking out, and leave more time to enjoy riding.


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