My favorite stall bedding for horses is straw. This preference probably dates back to my old Thoroughbred racetrack days. I think cleaning a stall bed on straw is easy and efficient. Done properly, there is very little waste. You start by cleaning a corner first, pile the good straw there, and work your way around all four corners. Pick out any remaining manure and wet areas in the middle and then fluff the straw back around the stall. It’s as simple as that. I think if a horse could have a say in the matter, they might like straw best, too. It’s about as natural as can be to where they’d lie down if given the choice outside. I can imagine them looking out at a field of tall grass when thinking about taking a nap, and then looking back at a (hypothetical) field of sawdust. Hmmm… The sad thing about straw it that’s it’s almost as expensive as hay in most parts, and in certain areas of the country, it is almost double the price of hay. The demand for straw in landscaping is largely responsible for straws’ high prices.
Sawdust is the most commonly-used bedding in stables. If one is lucky and has an ample storage area, they can get it hauled in by the dump truck load, which is the most economical route. When buying bagged sawdust, I’d venture to say it costs just as much to bed your horse as it does to feed them. Sawdust has additional drawbacks. For one, as the name implies, it is dust. Dust is not good for a horse; the finer the sawdust the higher the risk of respiratory ills. You can dampen the sawdust once you bed the stall down, but the dampness can only be dampness (not wet) and the desired amount of moisture will soon evaporate. If you walk through your horse’s stall and stir up dust, imagine the dust bowl your horse creates over the course of a day or night. Add to that, your horse’s head being close to the ground a good deal of the time when eating hay, and clean breathing for him or her in a stall bed on dusty sawdust is highly unlikely. There are also horses that are allergic to the oils in sawdust. Its owner will do well to find sawdust or shavings rendered from kiln dried woods. Otherwise, you’ll have a horse with chronic hives and added potential for breathing problems.
Wood Chips. They certainly are pretty. And for the most part, they do their job. They put down a nice bed for the horses to lie on, stand in, and “relieve” themselves. Some wood chips are more absorbent than others. The main problem with wood chips is that they stick to manure, which causes major amounts of waste. Once upon a time, the average barn crew cleaned stalls once a week. Wood chips were great back then. Now stalls are cleaned daily. Cleaning a stall bed on wood chips requires time and discrimination. If cost is an issue, you simply can’t go in and start heave-hoeing. You have to be “picky” (no pun intended) in the way you remove the soiled parts of the stall. Otherwise, it’s like throwing money out the door. Entertaining the question again about where would a horse lie down out in the wild, we have a retired Thoroughbred broodmare that thinks wood chips are the greatest things on earth. When her stall is bed, she’s down and rolling and looks like a wood-chip Christmas tree when she’s all said and done. She obviously loves the feel of the soft bedding.
Pine Pellets. These products are great for the backyard barn. You have to start out with a good base, which can be costly. Most manufactures recommend five to six bags to start. But once done, the stalls bed on pine pellets, which plump up when “moisturized” are easy and most efficient. The drawback with the pine pellets, in my opinion, is that they too become dusty. And before very long, look downright dirty, and can get pretty smelly.
The same can be said for Corn Pellets. It’s a great way to bed stalls on your own farm, particularly if you only have a few horses. You start with a base, five or six bags, depending on the size of the stall. And you can either lightly wet it down or let your horse’s urine wet it down. You only pick out the manure, and leave all but the heaviest wet spots. This is part of the process and it’s a breeze cleaning a stall bed this way. The problem I had with the corn pellets was that other people in the barn complained about the smell. It was fine during the summer, when all the doors and windows were open. But once fall hit and the barn was closed up at night, the smell became somewhat overwhelming to some come morning. The most common comment was that it smelled like “corn mash.”
Whatever the product one chooses, it’s important to keep your horse’s stall clean and as dust-free as possible, with a solid base for good footing and for when they lie down. I’ve seen barns where all the bedding is on the walls and very little in the center of the stalls. The logic behind that makes no sense to me. I’m not into stock piling the bedding so I can pull it into the middle two or three days from now. A horse’s stall should be bed to work its best day in and day out. Mares need a little extra bedding around the perimeter of their stall. Geldings need extra bedding in the center of their stalls. Some horses are easier to clean up after than others. Some go in one place, some drag whatever they’ve done everywhere. It should only take a few days of cleaning a horse’s stall to determine their patterns. Bed accordingly.