Horse Stall Bedding: To Straw or not to Straw?

During my recent visit to my beautiful homeland Germany – yes, I behaved like your regular American tourist, taking pictures and eating local food – I was reminded of the differences in horse keeping between Germany and the US. One of the differences was highlighted by an enormous pile of straw bales at beautiful Gut Neuhaus in Aachen, where Jim Masterson and I met to take pictures for his upcoming book.

straw bales in Germany
Gigantic straw bales - wouldn't this be fund to climb?

On day one of our photo shoot, with enthusiastic photographer Marcus Brauer in tow, I could not wait to get my hands on a pitch fork and turn a straw bedded stall into a comfy and cozy horse den. I admit, I find this fun.

In America, we mostly use shavings. To me, cleaning a stall with shavings is no fun at all. (I heard the same about straw bedded stalls from Americans…). But apart from personal preferences, what are the real advantages and disadvantages? I did a little soul searching and research, put my sentimental preferences aside, and came up with this brief comparison:

STRAW BEDDING

horse stall with straw bedding
A comfortable straw bedding

What is straw bedding? Straw is a byproduct of the production of rye, wheat, oats or barley. The dried stems are bundled together just like hay. Oat straw is most absorbent, rye straw is the least desirable, since it may contain elements that when ingested can cause choking. (!)

Advantages

Straw is usually readily available, natural, compostable and dust-free. When proper techniques are applied – one usually distinguishes between a ‘mattress technique’ and ‘frequent change technique’ – it is a clean and comfortable, dust-free environment for the horse. It provides soft bedding that is easy on the horse’s anatomy as it stands and rests or lies down. Horses also like to nibble on the clean roughage. If done properly and maintained well, straw bedding provides horses with a physically and mentally comfortable environment. Horses can shuffle it around and create uneven surfaces, which provide mental stimulation and comfort. It is not treated with chemicals, does not give off odors and is easily composted.

What to look out for

Straw bedding is more labor intensive than some other types of bedding. It does not absorb urine as well as some other types and therefore requires a stall floor that is ideally of cobble or cement with a run-off.  The so called mattress technique, where a thick layer is build up over time and cleaned out entirely periodically, requires knowledge and skill, otherwise it starts smelling unpleasantly. If you choose to clean out daily, you need to remove all urine soaked straw and droppings, cover the ground with the remaining straw and put fresh straw on top, every day. Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite easy, but still takes some effort.

If improperly dried straw can – just like hay – be a host for mold. When purchasing straw, look out for high quality and clean bales. Break bales open to check for mold.

WOOD SHAVINGS

Horse stall bedded with wood shavings
Horse stall bedded with wood shavings

What are wood shavings? Wood shavings are byproducts of wood manufacturing of any kind. They usually consist of several types of wood. We must distinguish between wood shavings from a bedding manufacturer and shavings you can purchase from a mill. We also must distinguish between the coarser wood shavings and the fine saw dust. (See below)

Advantages

Stall bedding with wood shavings is usually less labor intensive than straw. Due to its better absorption qualities, you can simply clean out the wet spots and droppings and sprinkle in new shavings. No special skill or technique required and due to lesser consumption volume, the cost of shavings is usually the same as straw, even though the cost per bale may be more. Shavings don’t require large storage spaces for the same reason. It’s usually relatively dust and mold free, if kept properly and dry. If a sufficiently thick layer is used, the horse will be able to shuffle wood shavings around and create comfortable spaces for himself.

What to look out for

You should purchase wood shavings from a special manufacturer of horse bedding. Wood shavings from a mill can contain harmful woods (black walnut, for example), mold, bacteria and micro-organisms from dead wood that are harmful to horses. In other words: buying from a mill is cheap, but you don’t know what you get! A stall bedded with wood shavings needs to be kept impeccably clean. Unlike with straw, where urine is not completely absorbed and travels to the bottom, wood shavings will soak up the urine and provide a wet and uncomfortable environment for the horse, if not cleaned at least once a day. Wood shavings, contrary to straw, do not provide a source of roughage for your horse.

OTHER TYPES OF STALL BEDDING

There are numerous types of stall bedding around, anything from paper shreds to wood pellets and saw dust. I do not want to get into the comparison between all of these types of bedding, since I don’t have sufficient experience in their use. However, a word of caution about SAW DUST: Saw dust has become a popular bedding due to it’s ease of use, cost effectiveness and absorption qualities. However, due to it’s physical make-up it provides a number of potential health risk and low physical and mental comfort for the horse. Horses like to shuffle their bedding. Saw dust is then floating in the air and the horses breathes the saw dust. Add to that harmful chemicals or undesirable types of wood and you are pre-programming your horse for respiratory and other health problems.

CONCLUSION

Whatever type of bedding your yourself prefer for practical or economical reasons, consider your horse first! Try to see the issue from the horse’s point of view, not from your own. Health, mental and physical comfort of the horse are more important than a clean coat or blanket. No matter what your choice of bedding, pay attention to quality. The hidden dangers in low quality bedding are not worth the savings.

Happy mucking and enjoy your horse!

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