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Choosing the right bedding for your horse 

by merete haahr    photo canva pro
Photos: Canva Pro

Are you struggling with finding the right bedding for your horse? Choosing the right bedding can be quite difficult. There are several types of bedding, ranging from woodchips to manufactured pellets to traditional straw, as well as many other more sustainable options. There is no perfect solution, and selecting the bedding suitable for your horses depends on several factors.

Read also: Get rid of flies, horseflies, mites, and mosquitoes


Many sport horses spend a lot of their time in the stable, in constant contact with the bedding.  Therefore, the material used in the stable is an essential factor in the horse's welfare. Absorbency, air quality, and comfort for the horse are all important factors to consider.

Absorbency of the bedding

The bedding's primary purpose is to absorb urine and moisture. The more absorbent bedding, the lower the ammonia levels in your barn. Researchers Lydotes and Uricchio of the University of Massachusetts carried out a study that looked at the ammonia content of different types of commonly used bedding materials, like straw, wood shavings, sawdust, and pellets. Contrary to popular belief, ammonia doesn't come from urine. However, urine contains urea, broken down by bacteria – this process produces ammonia. The researchers found that the bedding types with the best absorbency, wood pellets, and coarse shavings, had the lowest amount of ammonia. Ammonia is especially present at floor level in the stables, where your horse naturally eats and lies down. While the horse sleeps, breathing is slower, and he inhales toxic ammonia fumes, which can harm the horse's health and contribute to respiratory problems.

Low dust bedding

The air quality in the barn is also an essential factor. Horses in stables are easily exposed to airborne dust particles. The amount of this impact depends on the right choice of bedding, as well as several other factors, including the horse's activities and the ventilation in the stable. To assess the impact of varying bedding materials and the movements of the horses in the box, Yevgen Nazarenko from McGill University in Canada examined different materials, including ordinary straw bedding, sawdust, shavings, and sphagnum. He found that the largest concentration of dust particles was associated with sphagnum. The study concluded that straw was the material that exposed the horses to the least amount of dust when taking the horses' activities in the stable into the measurements. 


Comfort behavior of the horse

How does the horse feel when standing on different kinds of bedding? The Polish researcher Agnieszka Kwiatkowska-Stenzel investigated the comfort behavior of horses, as well as negative, undesirable behaviors. She found that horses spend considerably longer time lying down on straw bedding than peat, wood shavings, and pellets. The horses were notably more occupied with the straw bedding, standing still for shorter periods and showing more comfort behavior on straw than on the other types of bedding. When straw bedding was used, the horses showed less conflict behavior, like chewing or eating wood, box walking, or biting the bars. This correlates with other research showing that horses living on straw bedding spend three times as long lying down as horses standing on wood shavings. Horses also have the most prolonged uninterrupted deep sleep on straw bedding compared to those standing on sawdust bedding.

by merete haahr    photo canva pro (1)

The choice between edible and nonedible bedding

Is there a difference in the horse's behavior when standing on edible bedding, in contrast to nonedible bedding? Miriam Baumgartner has investigated the difference in the horse's behavior. To ensure the horses’ behavioral, physical, and mental welfare, the horse must not be without food for more than three to four hours at any time. However, according to Miriam Baumgartner, this basic need is often neglected. 75 % of the horses in her study were standing on non-edible bedding and had no roughage available for up to nine hours during the night. This could significantly increase the horse's risk of developing gastric ulcers due to the lack of saliva production. When feeding becomes restricted, the horse seeks alternative feed sources to meet its natural needs. A hungry horse will go to extremes to eat anything, even sawdust, which is difficult to digest and can cause colic. Miriam Baumgartner concludes that horses' natural needs are not satisfied when kept on non-edible bedding without access to roughage. Lack of roughage is one of the leading causes of behavioral disorders in horses.


When choosing horse bedding, sustainability is also an essential factor. Is the product locally grown, is it renewable, or does it harm the environment? Researchers have recently found that composted bedding can be a good alternative. It is suitable for horses suffering from allergies and respiratory problems and helps to reduce lameness. 

Another renewable bedding source is willow chips, locally grown without fertilizer or chemicals.  


In Sweden, there has been an experiment using reeds that grow naturally along meadows and damp areas. It is a renewable source, easy to work with and horses lie down more frequently than they do on pellets, says Bo Lundmark.

Sphagnum is commonly used as bedding, but it should be avoided. According to the Danish Environmental Organization, it comes from a non-renewable source. It is dug from rare and threatened natural bogs, releases vast amounts of CO2, and causes unrepairable damage to the biodiversity of the marsh.

Cost of the bedding

Finance is also a consideration when choosing bedding, but many factors influence the final cost. It can be cheaper to buy big amounts, but it is important to consider storage and handling of the bedding. Not storing the bedding correctly can compromise hygiene and lead to a significant loss.  Saving too much on your bedding can be more costly in the end, financially and in terms of your horse's health. One way to save on the cost of bedding can be to provide plenty of roughage to prevent your horse from eating its bedding. Consider deep littering, as it saves time and money and provides a warm, compact bed for your horse. Keeping your horse outside in the paddock for longer hours of the day can benefit the horse's health and welfare and reduce the cost of bedding.

by merete haahr    photo canva pro (2)

Sources: Burla, J.-B., Rufener, C., Bachmann, I., Gygax, L., Patt, A., & Hillmann, E. (1AD, January 1). Space allowance of the littered area affects lying behavior in group-housed horses. Frontiers.  //  Curtis GC;Barfoot CF;Dugdale AH;Harris PA;Argo CM; (n.d.). Voluntary ingestion of wood shavings by obese horses under dietary restriction. The British journal of nutrition.  //  Baumgartner, M., Boisson, T., Erhard, M. H., & Zeitler-Feicht, M. H. (2020, March 2). Common feeding practices pose a risk to the welfare of horses when kept on non-edible bedding. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI.  //  Nazarenko, Y., Westendorf, M. L., Williams, C. A., & Mainelis, G. (2018, March 30). The effects of bedding type in stalls and activity of horses on Stall Air Quality. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.  //  Klimatströ - Glommers Miljöenergi AB: GME. Glommers Miljöenergi AB | GME. (2019, February 10).  //  Blickle, A. (2022, April 7). Recycling compost as horse bedding. The Horse.  //  admin, L. P. E. L. C. (2020, September 4). Composted horse manure and Stall Bedding Pilot project. Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Community.  //  Comparison between different types of bedding materials for horses. (n.d.).  //  Person. (2020, August 27). Sjælden Natur ødelægges: Derfor Skal du Undgå at Købe Spagnum. Danmarks Naturfredningsforening.  //  Person. (2020, August 27). Sjælden Natur ødelægges: Derfor Skal du Undgå at Købe Spagnum. Danmarks Naturfredningsforening.


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