The Science of Shavings

By Chapel Puckett

Shavings are an integral part of any horse care routine – horses can spend a lot of time in their stalls. It is important to know the composition of different kinds of shavings, as many horses can be irritated by some components. From those with respiratory issues to foaling mares, there is an appropriate type of shaving for every horse.

Shavings are the most common bedding for horses, as they are easy to store and widely accessible in different variations. They are very absorbent and therefore less expensive, as a small amount of shavings will absorb urine. With a small surface area of shavings to be disposed of, little shavings may be used. Importantly, the quality of shavings may vary greatly. Further, there are different kinds of shavings that provide different benefits as well as some kinds that should be avoided due to health risks.

Pine shavings

• Pine shavings are usually the most common kind of shavings used in the horse industry, as most horses don’t have skin reactions to this kind of wood. The limitation is that if too green, the sap might still be in the shavings and cause irritation to the horse.

• Cedar is another popular choice. Some horses are irritated by this kind of wood because it has a high oil content, which is something that an owner should consider.

• Oak shavings rarely cause irritations but is not widely available, as it is only accessible where hardwoods are milled.

• Black Walnut shavings should not be used for horses because it can be toxic and even brief contact can cause extreme irritation and hair loss for horses. Stay away from these shavings.

Peat moss (a non-renewable resource)

• Cyprus shavings are usually available in the south but horses with sensitive skin may be irritated by this kind of wood.

• Maple and red maple shavings are toxic to horses and should not be used.

• Black Cherry shavings can cause slightly more mild reactions, but is toxic if eaten. Do not use this kind of shavings either.

Although shavings are considered a popular and safe bedding to use, it is clear that there are some types that should not be used due to safety issues. Research which kind would be best for your horse and test it out before changing their entire stall to a new brand.

Sawdust is not necessarily the most preferable kind of bedding, as it is made up of fine wood particles and therefore can be quite dusty. Every movement in a stall with sawdust moves particles and raises dust which a horse will inhale. These dust particles can also get into their eyes and cause irritation. It is relatively inexpensive and widely available, so many owners use it. It is not recommended for horses with respiratory issues.

Wood pellets

Wood pellets are becoming a popular alternative to traditional shavings as they provide absorbency without dust. The pellets themselves are made of kiln-dried woods and sawdust. They expand into the sawdust when broken down by the horse’s hooves as well as any liquid it contains. They are incredibly absorbent and easy to store due to their smaller size in comparison to regular shavings. New pellets are often sprayed with water to make them softer for the horse. They are also cost-effective as virtually no excess pellets are removed when mucking since the pellets themselves absorb liquid. A manure pile will accumulate significantly slower when using wood pellets. They aren’t generally available yet, but with growing popularity will come wider distribution.

Paper shavings

Paper shavings are the most absorbent kind of shavings when compared to straw, wood shavings, peat moss, and hemp fibers. This was discovered in a study in 1998 at the Equine Research Centre. They are easy to store–close to the size of a typical shavings bag–and their absorbency is very attractive to horse owners. However, if there is a lot of humidity, paper can become very heavy due to its absorbency. This can lead to mold in some cases, which is harmful to horse’s skin and respiratory tract. It is also important to find a good-quality paper rather than glossy paper which is associated with heavy metals or paper that has ink other than vegetable ink. Shredded paper, however, is unlikely to irritate horses if the paper is of good quality as it is virtually dust-free.

BedEdge Straw

Straw is also popular although it is a very inconsistent bedding. If there has been a rainy season, it could be moldy which causes respiratory problems. There is also a lot of waste since it is not very absorbent and a lot of it is used to absorb urine. Its popularity is often based off of its availability as it is the only kind of bedding readily accessible in some places. A typical use for straw is for broodmares. Straw cannot be inhaled by foals and does not contaminate umbilical cords. One danger is that if it is inhaled a highly dangerous impaction colic could occur. Storage is also slightly harder since it must be under cover in order to not get wet and moldy.

BedEdge is a new bedding product made of chopped straw. It has the same absorption qualities of shavings and mucks out the same way. Without the porous nature of baled straw, BedEdge is more economical to use as less is removed each day. It is dust free and a good choice for horses with allergies. Like shavings, it is sold in bags for easy storage and transport.

This article was originally published in the July 2016 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.