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The Benefits of Bedding

Most horse owners take great pride in providing their horses with clean, nice-looking stalls; some of us might even throw in that extra bit of bedding for added comfort. But could we be unknowingly harming our horses more than helping them? Let’s examine some facts on the various types of common bedding and how they can affect our horses’ health. Armed with this knowledge, we can make informed decisions about what bedding is right for our horses and our situations.

The Air in There

What makes our choice of bedding so important? According to the book Equine Respiratory Diseases, edited by Pierre Lekeux, DVM, PhD, a professor at the University of Liege in Belgium, the adult horse is exposed to 30 million liters of air annually–air that contains a mixture of gaseous and particulate pollutants. The primary sources of airborne dust in stables are feed and bedding. Airborne dust can include such harmful substances as bacteria, viruses, molds, insect debris and feces, plant material, bacterial endotoxins, and inorganic dusts. Several equine respiratory disorders, such as heaves, inflammatory airway disease, and pharyngeal lymphoid hyperplasia (inflammation, allergic reaction, and ulceration of the lymphoid tissue at the rear of the throat), are directly caused by, or aggravated by, the inhalation of airborne dust.

If you keep a horse with an infectious respiratory disease in a dusty environment, this might cause increased coughing, mucus hypersecretion (secretion of more mucus than normal), and bronchoconstriction (tightening of the airways). All of this can prolong recovery. Lekeux wrote that stressing the convalescing horse in this way can also lead to sensitization (increased reactivity) to inhaled environmental allergens, which can cause heaves.

The bad news is that if you’re not careful, your sick horse could end up with a chronic and painful condition. The good news is that management techniques can help minimize the dust in your stable, keeping your sick horse (and your healthy ones) breathing easier. “Effective hygiene measures may reduce dust exposure by up to 90%,” noted Lekeux.1

Maintaining proper ventilation inside your barn is a must for equine respiratory health. But even with the best ventilation, the dust content of bedding must be considered. While there are a variety of scientific ways to measure the dust content in your horse’s stall, Edward Robinson, BVetMed, PhD, MRCVS, a professor who specializes in equine respiratory diseases at Michigan State University, suggests a simple method.

“The best thing is to shake the bedding up yourself and see what it looks like. Smell it,” he says. “If you find that you’re uncomfortable while bedding the stall and want to run out of there, you should remember that your horse has to live in that environment.”

Keep in mind that the highest airborne dust levels occur during mucking out–reaching levels of 10-15 mg/m3 and containing 20-60% respirable particles (small enough to be inhaled), according to Lekeux. This can equate to 12 million inhaled particles per breath.

One way to save your horse from breathing in all of this dust is by removing him from the stall while you are cleaning. (You might even want to wear a face mask for your own protection.)

Susan Raymond, PhD candidate (Life Sciences) and research associate at the Equine Research Centre at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, says that bedding quality is also an important factor. The better the quality, the less dust is likely to be in the bedding.

“The quality of bedding can have a big impact on the short- and long-term health of our horses,” she says. “Horse owners should really take a close look at the quality of the bedding that they are purchasing, and if a bedding is quite cheap, it might be for a reason. Before purchasing a product, find out the type, source, and baling/packaging conditions.”

So by choosing good-quality bedding that you inspect yourself, the risk of dust problems can be reduced.

Factors in Choosing Bedding

Good managers need to ask themselves some additional questions prior to choosing bedding. These include:

  • What health concerns are involved with each type of bedding?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each type of bedding you are considering?
  • What is the availability of these products where you live? Are you willing to pay more to have a certain type of bedding shipped?
  • Where will bedding be stored?
  • How will you dispose of bedding; are there any regulations on disposal in your area?
  • Will the type of bedding you choose work with your stall flooring?
  • If your horse has a respiratory disease, or develops one, how can you best manage your stable to aid in his comfort?

There are many types of bedding available. Some of the more common ones include straw; wood products such as shavings, wood chips, sawdust, and pelleted products; recycled paper or cardboard products; peat moss; hemp; and synthetic products.

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