TO BED OR NOT TO BED – Do horses need bedding with rubber mats?

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” - Shakespeare

Quick Notes:
No trials have been done comparing horse preferences between rubber mats with bedding and rubber mats without bedding. However, given the choice, horses prefer bedding to no bedding and horses spend longer lying down when the bedding is deeper with fewer pressure sores. It has also been shown that ammonia from urine not absorbed by bedding can cause lung damage; therefore, deep bedding can improve a horse’s health and welfare.

More Detail:
It is often claimed that horses do not need bedding in their stables because they are not nesting animals i.e. they do not build a comfortable nest of bedding material in the wild. However, this argument is easily countered as horses are also not animals that seek to spend time confined in a small area (pen or stable) where they do not have a choice of where to lie down and where they are confined in an enclosed space with their own urine and faeces. In large paddocks, domestic horses will often dig themselves a more comfortable area to lie in, or choose a sandy area over a hard area if a choice is available, therefore it can readily be seen that horses choose comfort over discomfort.

What do the horses themselves say?
Studies show that, given the choice, horses will choose to lie down on an area of bedding in preference to an area with no bedding. I could not find a study that compared the choice of lying on rubber mats to bedding, but please contact me if you know of such a published study.

Other studies show that some horses have an individual preference for the type of bedding, which doesn’t relate to their past experience i.e. just because they have been on shavings doesn’t mean they will choose shavings by choice. In one study, straw was preferred over shavings which was preferred over paper, but another study found that some horses prefer to lie in one part of the stable regardless of the type of bedding that is there (so long as there is bedding).

This indicates that horses prefer bedding to non-bedding but that there is no one specific type of bedding that is preferred by all horses.

Why is sleep important?
Horses sleep in various ways including standing up, lying on their chests (sternal recumbency) and lying flat on their sides (lateral recumbency). They cannot only sleep standing up i.e. they MUST spend some time sleeping while lying down and if they cannot lie down for some reason (e.g. arthritis) then they will eventually fall over. Lying down to sleep has several advantages in that it allows REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, also known as paradoxical sleep. REM sleep only occurs in lateral recumbency (i.e. lying flat) and is a form of deep sleep that is regarded as essential for health. Not all of the health benefits of REM sleep are known but it is linked with reduced stress and anxiety in humans, is believed to play a part in learning in both horses and humans, and has benefits due to its almost complete muscle relaxation (although some movement occurs when horses are dreaming). As well as this, any recumbent sleep allows the weight to be taken off the legs and joints.

Anecdotally, horses also spend more time lying down if given a larger and deeper bed, and this can readily be checked for an individual horse by running a video camera for 24 hours per day for a period of time (more than a few days, as horses can sleep standing for days before lying down).

Therefore, increasing the time spent lying down, particularly in lateral recumbency, is considered beneficial to the horse and this is more likely to occur with bedding than without. Studies have shown that horses spend up to three times longer lying in lateral recumbency when on straw than when on shavings, with the same amount of time spent lying sternally i.e. the overall time spent lying down was increased, with this occurring with the horse lying flat when REM sleep can occur. These health benefits must of course be balanced by the increased risk of dust and allergies caused by substances such as straw, but the risks are mitigated with different types of bedding.

Does ammonia cause damage?
Another significant issue with not using absorbent bedding, regardless of whether or not rubber mats are used, is the damage to lung tissue caused by ammonia. Ammonia is a component of urine and is what you can smell when a horse (or human) urinates. If there is sufficient bedding then this smell is mild and disappears or greatly decreases as the urine is absorbed. Without bedding, the smell persists and the ammonia remains in the air.

Ammonia from urine in other species has been investigated in respect to the damage it can cause to human lungs (e.g. one study researched workers in the pig industry), and it was found that if the ammonia was able to be smelt then it was already at a level where there was risk of damage to the lungs. Of course, if this is only for a short period then damage is minimal or countered quickly, but long periods in an atmosphere contaminated by ammonia can cause significant damage.

In general, horses are performance animals and have an increased risk of damage to lung tissue particularly when stabled as the lungs are challenged by other things too, such as dust and fungal spores. Urine and faeces deposited directly onto rubber with no bedding smells more than when bedding is present, particularly if the horse remains in a contaminated environment overnight or for 24 hours. This not only increases risk of lung damage to the horse, but also to humans that have to clean the stables. Because research in other industries has raised this as a problem, this could be a potential issue for employers if workers have health problems in the future.

Any other issues with having no bedding?
Some horses are reluctant to urinate directly onto rubber (or concrete) as it splashes their legs. Retaining urine in the bladder when it is full can cause additional health problems such as infection and even rupture if the bladder is overfull for long periods.

Having no or inadequate bedding can also increase the risk of pressure sores if a horse does spend time lying down in the stable. These can occur on the limbs or sides and are the effect is worse if the horse is lying down in faeces and urine, which can also result in infected sores.

But don’t rubber mats have a lot of advantages?
Rubber mats have many advantages, which can be found listed on any website advertising them. These include reduced concussion, anti-slip, easy to clean and disinfect, and increased insulation and warmth.

They are also advocated as a means to decrease the need for bedding, which reduces cost, mucking out time, and the size of the muck heap. However, although the latter benefits may be of significance, they must not be used as the excuse to avoid any bedding for the horse, for the reasons mentioned above, as it is not natural for a horse to be restricted in a small bare area contaminated by faeces and urine. Ideally, the horse should have enough bedding so it can lay flat on the floor (laterally recumbency) and be supported by bedding over its full length. This area can easily be estimated by laying out a rug/neck rug in the stable and allowing for the head too – many people are surprised by how much space the horse does need.

Rubber mats are also advocated for horses that have problems with allergies to dust and fungal spores that occur in bedding. Many new bedding materials are dust extracted and treated with anti-fungals and it is uncommon for a horse to not be able to be kept on at least one bedding type. Due to the health reasons mentioned above, if a horse was that allergic then it might be better to keep it paddocked outside rather than stabled without any bedding at all, although exceptions would occur depending on things such as climate and allergy types (e.g. some horses are also allergic to pasture pollens).

To Sum Up:

  • Is the horse in the wild a nesting animal?                                           No
  • Does this mean that the horse can do without bedding?                No
  • Does lack of bedding cause problems for horse health?               Yes
  • Could lack of bedding cause problems for human health too?     Yes
  • Do horses prefer to have bedding rather than no bedding?           Yes
  • Are there advantages to having rubber matting in stables?          Yes
  • Should a horse without allergies have mats without bedding?     No
  • Should rubber mats be used just to save money on bedding?      No

Although much of the damage caused by insufficient or no bedding may not show up for a long period of time, it is important to realise that this may be progressively building up on a day-to-day basis. Other than for horses that are highly allergic, there is no evidence that a complete absence of bedding is beneficial to health whereas there is evidence that a lack of it can be detrimental. Ideally, using rubber mats with bedding gives the main advantages of both and rubber mats MUST NOT be used just to save money on bedding or time to the long-term detriment of the horse.

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