Straw, shavings, paper – hemp? There are many horse bedding options available on the market today.
Like many things in the Western performance industry, the type of bedding you choose for your horse’s stall is likely based in tradition — maybe your parents used it, or a favorite trainer. If you keep your horse elsewhere, you may not have much say in the matter, but it’s good to know what he is laying his head on at night should issues such as allergies arise.
Straw and pine shavings are commonly used, and for good reason — both have proven over time to make good bedding material. There are, however, other types out there beyond those two, and sometimes circumstances necessitate a switch to something different.
The usual suspects
Used commonly all over the country, straw and pine shavings are readily found in most feed stores. Pine shavings are easy to grab and go, whether the destination is home or a show, and the economical cost makes them simple to throw down and leave behind after an event is over. Straw, on the other hand, is a good option when bedding down horses in cold weather, and it provides foals a safe, soft place to doze.
“A lot of it comes down to personal preference,” said Nick Fitzpatrick, president of Aden Brook, which sources hay and straw around the U.S. and Canada. “People choose shavings or straw depending on different needs they might have. A lot of it also comes down to how they manage the waste. Some people have a way to get rid of the straw easily; some people prefer the shavings. From a cleaning standpoint, shavings are probably cleaner and smell better in a barn than straw.”
Figuring out what to do with barn waste is a large part of farm management, and there are whole industries built on composting used straw from horse farms. Fitzpatrick said mushroom and gardening composts are places straw can be disposed and reused.
On the other hand, shavings — particularly large flake shavings — can alter the soil in a negative way when spread on a field. The smaller a shaving flake is, the easier it is to pick from a stall and the faster it will break down in a pasture. Shavings are more absorbent and easier to pick through than straw, which tends to have to be completely replaced after being soiled.
Shavings come in different-sized flakes to help meet the different needs of horse owners. According to Kyle Gustafson, sales representative for Guardian Horse Bedding, people who clean their own stalls at home tend to want a smaller flake that will sift through a fork more easily, helping them save time and not waste bedding. People traveling to shows, however, might want something that expands a little more so they can take fewer bags of bedding with them.
“When you’re at a show for the weekend, you’re going to be leaving it [used bedding] behind,” Gustafson said. “You’re not going to be taking it home, so you want to do something that’s as easy as possible. Depending on if it’s a concrete floor where you’re going, you want something fluffy to get them up off the ground. A lot of times for show situations, the larger-flake product is preferred.”
Pine bedding has some odor-binding capability, which helps keep stalls smelling fresh. Some companies, like Guardian, use high heat to dry their shavings, which bakes out most of the allergens caused by pine and eliminates many allergy problems. Pine shavings are also readily available in most parts of the country.
“Straw, depending on what part of the country you’re in, may or may not be available at all,” Gustafson said. “Small bales of straw are even harder to find because the farmers are putting those into very large square bales, which make it mandatory to have equipment to move those around. A lot of the large farms that create a lot of straw are selling those corporately to companies that make other things.
“And, straw, of course, is a seasonal item, so it’s harvested basically once a year,” he continued. “That has to get you through to the whole following year. It isn’t always as available as pine is because pine can be harvested year-round, not just once a year.”
Another option is pelleted bedding, which has smaller fibers and is even more absorbent than shavings. The pellets are laid out in the stall and then watered down, and the resulting bedding is soft and easy to pick. The contaminated pellets even bind loosely together to help facilitate their removal.
“A pretty good-sized advantage to pellets for some locations is if you’ve got a facility that uses a dumpster when they clean stalls, the contaminated product goes into the dumpster. If you’ve got large flake shavings, you’re going to fill your dumpster faster because of the extra volume you’ve got there, and that means you’ve got to pay to have the dumpster removed more frequently. The pellet can be a cost savings for those people that have to have it removed via dumpster.”
Think smarter, not harder
As technology has progressed over the years, some people have successfully taken old products and revamped them into something new and useful. Such is the case with Green Shavings, a company owned by Carey Nowacek that sells “medicated” shavings. These shavings help prevent diseases by making the stall environment more acidic, and prohibiting bacterial and fungal growth.
“We came up with green shavings because we had a horse that was continuously getting white line disease,” Nowacek said. “The shavings are actually sprayed with potassium sorbate, which is a fungal inhibitor. It’s in anything you eat or drink that has a shelf life. We spray those on the shavings and then we color them green just so you can tell the difference between our shavings and something else. They’re really not killing any bacteria, [but they’re] going to keep any bacteria from growing.”
The product, which functions exactly like regular shavings, also helps prevent issues like thrush and scratches from getting a foothold in a stall. They are popular with veterinarians, who often see sick horses coming and going through their clinics.
“They’re exactly the same as pine shavings — ours are just a fluffy pine. There’s basically nothing different except that we spray them as they are chopped off of the wood and they go through the kiln to dry. The color won’t come off and the potassium sorbate won’t come off, because everything is dried onto the shavings.”
While Green Shavings are not available through individual distributors, the company sells them through their website and ships from their location in Franklinton, Louisiana.
“It’s a little bit more per bag –— it’s a premium product, of course,” Nowacek said. “How it compares just depends on where you are because of shipping. They’re big bags, 12-cubic-foot bags, but in the end it just depends on where you are.”
Beyond straw and pine
For those looking for options besides traditional straw or pine shavings, there are several others out there to meet their needs. Some, such as peat moss bedding, are dependent on locality, but others are making their way into the mainstream with increasing availability.
Paper bedding is commonly found in pet stores as a substrate material for small animals and reptiles, but it can also be used for equines. One of the big advantages is paper has carbon in it naturally, so it immediately removes the smell of ammonia from waste, according to Ron Burrough, owner of R&R Animal Bedding.
“It’s about 10 times more absorbent [than pine shavings],” Burrough said. “You never have to strip a stall when you use paper shavings because the paper, when they urinate on it, actually clumps together, so there’s no urine laying on the stall mat. It doesn’t travel through the stall, so it doesn’t soil any more than the spot that they go in.”
R&R sources its paper from its own printing business, so it controls all of the supply. Everything in the business uses soy-based inks, so there are no harmful side effects.
“Basically, you can eat it,” Burrough said with a laugh. “We’ve never had an issue with that, and we’ve got colts on it. Especially for people that foal earlier in the year, it’s warmer for the foal, and the paper actually makes it easier for the foal to get up than straw or pine shavings. It’s a little grippier for them when they’re stumbling around trying to get up to nurse. It’s perfectly safe for the mare, as well.”
He added that many people switch to paper shavings if they have horses with allergies to pine or if they themselves have problems with dust from shavings. The paper shavings are vacuumed as they are made, eliminating most of the dust.
Based in Lapeer, Michigan, R&R distributes its products mostly in the Midwest, and Burrough said Equi-Stat Elite $6 Million Rider Shawn Flarida, of Springfield, Ohio, is one of their biggest customers. Startup with paper shavings is fairly simple — one bag is equivalent to a bag and a half of pine shavings, so two bags of paper shavings should be enough for a 10-by-12 stall, he explained.
Another option for horse bedding may come as a surprise. Hemp, grown in China for thousands of years and commonly used in Europe as livestock bedding, is starting to take hold in the U.S. Hemp has bark fibers that surround a woody core, and through a process called decortication, those fibers are separated from the core. That’s where the bedding comes from.
“Its function as it’s being cultivated is to help transport water through the plant structure, so the porosity and the way that the material is structured actually helps make it a good bedding because it has that absorbent structure to it already,” said Patrique Veille, market strategist for American Hemp in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “It’s an annually cultivated, rapidly renewable row crop that comes from the cannabis genus, but it has low amounts of THC [Tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis] – 0.3 percent or less.”
Since Section 7606 of the U.S. Agricultural Act of 2014 passed, more states have been able to legally cultivate hemp to process and market it. Thus, the popularity of hemp bedding is on the rise due to the more stable supply.
“When we’ve done tests, it’s about twice as absorbent as [pine] shavings and definitely more than the straw,” Veille said. “It doesn’t have a hollow core like the straw. It also has low dust, and that’s attributed to the way it’s processed. People have also mentioned they felt like it was good at odor control.
“And, it’s lightweight,” he added. “Some of our older clients like the lightweight factor of it; they feel like it’s easier to muck out. When people have put it on their pastures, it is higher in Nitrogen than the wood shavings, so they felt like it was better for their pastures.”
The main disadvantage to hemp bedding is the initial cost, although once a stall is set up with hemp shavings, it can require less replacement bedding than pine shavings because of its longevity and absorbency. Most of the supply is on the East Coast currently, making shipping to the West Coast more expensive, but that could decrease as more local processing facilities pop up.
Thanks to today’s technology and continuous new research, there are many options on the market for horse bedding. Picking the one that’s best for your horses often comes down to initial startup costs, disposal alternatives and personal preference. As globalization progresses, if one doesn’t work, there are many others waiting in the wings until you find the one that keeps you and your horse happy.
This article was originally published in the June 15, 2018 issue of Quarter Horse News.