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Publication #AS39

Selecting and Buying Bedding for Horses1

E.L. Johnson2

Materials utilized for the bedding of stalls and pens used to house all classes of livestock are cyclic in availability and cost. This has been the case for the last several years and is likely to remain that way into the future. Availability may vary by large geographic region all the way down to local communities. It can vary with the activity or volatility in the building trade, with factors impacting agricultural production, and now with the promotion of biomass energy production. On a local level, there certainly may be an opportunity to identify and purchase bedding materials that may have a limited production and, therefore, availability. This may not work well for the large producer/owner, but may offer the smaller owner/producer a savings.

The one thing that has helped the availability and somewhat stabilized the price of bedding has been businesses entering the marketplace that are dedicated to the production and marketing of equine bedding materials. These companies don't rely solely upon other businesses or individuals to supply them with the by-products to make and/or market bedding supplies. Rather, this is the main business objective.

Bedding Sources

Materials used for bedding are typically by-products of various industries. Increased technology and a stressed economy have resulted in many materials that have traditionally been used as bedding materials being used by or within the industry producing them. Excellent examples of this are seen in the lumber industry. Shavings and sawdust have been a major source of bedding in the horse industry for many years. Now much less of these materials may be available because the building industry is using many more pressed wood products. This is the result of improved technology yielding more satisfactory products at competitive prices, plus the escalating cost of solid wood products. Also, many of the plants producing shavings and/or sawdust are installing boiler systems that utilize these products for fuel to produce steam for energy and heat. Additionally, many of the operations or plants producing these by-products are closing or have already closed. There have also been efforts directed toward utilizing the materials for the production of methane or biodiesel to replace or reduce the use of gasoline and diesel fuel. Power plants are studying the feasibility of using these products to produce energy, rather than using fossil fuels. Other examples of diminishing availability of bedding sources are varieties of wheat and oats being developed that produce less straw and competition from mushroom growers for these same bedding materials.

Many of the larger breeding and training facilities do not have the flexibility that smaller operations can enjoy. They must keep a supply of bedding stockpiled, and changes in routine or schedule are more difficult to cope with, whereas, smaller operations can make changes more readily. Farms with limited bedding requirements can survey the market to find available materials suitable for use in their management scheme. Slight management changes may be necessary to accommodate a change in bedding. They can play the market and buy the product that represents the wisest, most economical purchase. With this flexibility, they may change materials as often as the market dictates or warrants. If this flexibility exists for a producer or owner, it is important to realize many of the materials presently used for bedding are limited by season or geography. Therefore, it behooves producers to investigate alternative sources in their locale and to determine what time(s) during the year they may be available. Examples of materials used for bedding include the traditional straw, shavings, and hay. Also included in this list are paper, cardboard, peanut hulls, rice hulls, tobacco stems, corn fodder, bark, chopped corn cobs, tanbark, and sand.

Bedding Criteria

When investigating potential bedding materials, there are several factors to consider other than cost, availability, and transportation. These factors include (1) absorbency, (2) dustiness, (3) amount of cushion provided, (4) possibility of allergic reactions, (5) whether the materials track out of the stall, (6) consequences of materials being eaten, (7) requirement of special handling equipment or storage facilities, (8) how quickly or well the materials decompose, and (9) flammability of the materials.

Since one of the primary functions of bedding materials is to absorb moisture, part of the selection criteria should be absorbency (Table 1). Obviously, kiln-dried shavings are superior to green shavings, and well-cured straw or hay is better than that put up somewhat green.

In a study done at the University of Florida comparing the absorbency of shredded paper, wheat straw, and wood shavings, the absorbency values were respectively 4.7, 2.4, and .85 times their weight.

If absorbency is a major criterion, it follows that storage of these materials is critical. To get the most out of your bedding, it should be stored so as to keep it dry. Not only does proper storage increase the absorbency of a given material, it also helps assure a material that is less dusty and free of mold (Figure 1).

Figure 1. 

Proper storage.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]


When selecting either straw or hay for bedding, it should be selected just as if you were selecting hay to feed livestock. It should be bright, clean, dry, and dust-free (Figure 2). The same is true of shavings or sawdust, but an additional factor to be considered is whether or not it contains any walnut. Walnut wood contains a toxin that results in an allergic reaction in most horses and may cause severe cases of laminitis. If one is obtaining shavings or sawdust from cabinet shops or other specialty wood product processing or manufacturing facilities, not only should you be cautious about walnut contamination, but exotic woods as well. Many paper products are very absorbent, but depending on the process used to turn them into bedding and the original use of the paper, they may contain foreign particles, they may be dusty, they may contain toxic inks, or they may have a coating that retards their absorbency.

Figure 2. 

Bright, clean, dry, and dust-free.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

There is always concern among those using bedding regarding the consequences or dangers of animals eating bedding. When using peanut hulls, there is a potential danger of aflatoxin poisoning. Horses are extremely sensitive to aflatoxins. Paper bedding has received significant major recognition as a bedding material in many areas. To determine what the consequences of animals eating these materials may be, it must be known what foreign materials may be in the paper. If it can be determined that no foreign materials are present, then very little danger exists. In fact, there have been several experiments conducted utilizing ground cardboard, newsprint, and computer paper as a feedstuff in the rations of cattle and horses. In many instances, they make a satisfactory feedstuff as part of the overall ration. Therefore, it should be obvious that eating these materials will not harm horses.

The future will probably see more and more nontraditional materials being used for bedding. It will be up to the individual user to determine what is available in the area, to evaluate sources and supplies available, and to determine cost-effectiveness.

In order to determine cost-effectiveness, it is necessary to know what each material costs on a per unit basis, the amount of material required per stall per day, and the absorbency values for the materials. To determine some of these values may require some effort and actual experimentation with various products; however, this effort may prove to provide substantial savings over the course of a year. That is something that most buyers should appreciate.


Table 1. 

The Midwest Plan Catalog lists the absorbency value of some of the common bedding materials. They are as follows:

Bedding material approximate water-absorbing capacity

lbs of water/lb of bedding


Tanning bark


Pine chips








Hardwood chips, shavings and sawdust


Shredded stover


Ground cobs


Oats, threshed






Hay, chopped mature



This document is AS39, one of a series of the Animal Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date November 1993. Reviewed June 2003. Revised October 2011. Visit the EDIS website at


E.L. Johnson, associate professor, Department of Animal Sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.