Shavings 101

So many things to consider…

by Shawna Bowin

Maybe you’re new to owning a horse, or just new to having one on your property.  Or maybe you’ve had horses so long that it’s been a while since you’ve even thought about shavings.  What type do you want, what should you watch out for, and how do you want them packaged and/or delivered?  

First, what type of shavings do you want?  

It’s easier to determine the shavings you definitely do NOT want.  Do not buy shavings from any company that also processes hard woods.  Some may be safe for horses, but there are some, such as walnut or maple that are definitely toxic.  Cedar is one that’s on the fence.  Some horses are fine with it (and their owners love the smell!), but some horses can get respiratory issues or have skin irritation.  Best to steer clear if you’re not sure how your horse will react, or if you have multiple horses who will use the shavings (more chances of one of the horses being sensitive).  Pine and fir are both generally safe choices (though any animal can turn out to be allergic to any substance, of course) and are plentiful here in the northwest.

What other qualities should you look for when buying shavings?  

Some people assume the drier the better, and look for kiln-dried shavings (the shavings are dried in what is essentially a giant clothes dryer after being shaved, to ensure a low moisture content).  However, think of shavings like a sponge—if they start off with a little moisture in them, they are going to also absorb moisture faster.  However, the drier they start off, the more moisture they will absorb over time.  So it’s good to strike a balance.  For something like a show or fair environment, where you’ll be picking early and often, it might be best to choose a shaving with a higher-than normal moisture content so the urine is absorbed right away, and you’ll be scooping the stall frequently and therefore will not leave as much residue behind.  For long-term use like a horse that is stalled 12 hours a day and whose shavings are picked once daily or less frequency, you might prefer the extra absorbency of dry shavings, to ensure they continue absorbing for hours, especially if you have a horse that likes to pee in the same spot.

There are many different shapes and sizes of shavings  

This comes down entirely to personal preference, but there are guidelines to help you make the decision if you’re not sure.  If you’re going to be using the shavings in an outdoor shed, run, or in a stock-type trailer with a lot of airflow, try to choose the largest, flattest shaving you can so they don’t instantly blow away.  If they have a higher moisture content, even better, as the extra weight will help keep them in place longer, and they will also absorb quickly to start with, then dry out to be able to absorb even more.  If you have a horse who needs a lot of cushioning, choose the curliest shavings you can.  All those curls make the shavings fluffy, and provide cushioning for your horse’s hooves, or for him or her to spend time lying down.  Another option some manufacturers have are very fine shavings.  These are a great option for horses who like to pee in only one spot especially, or for any horses who spend a lot of time stalled.  A great strategy is to use the fine shavings where the horse tends to pee the most, then bed with fluffy shavings on top.  Pick the poo, scrape the fluffy shavings away and scoop the pee, replace any of the fine shavings you need, then redistribute the fluffy shavings, and you can probably re-use the fluffy shavings for quite a while before needing to fully re-bed the stall.  Just be sure that the fine shavings are screened to remove dust.  They should be small, but still distinct shavings, and not just a pile of dusty stuff.

Bulk or bags?

So, you’re starting to get an idea of the type of wood, kind of manufacturer, and size of shavings you think you need.  But some places offer shavings in bulk, and others have them packaged in bags.  What are the pros and cons?  It somewhat depends on the area you plan to store your shavings.  If you have a bin with sides, you are more likely to lean toward bulk shavings (trucked in and dumped in a loose pile you scoop the shavings from).  If you don’t have such a location, or maybe even if you do, consider bagged shavings.  They are compressed, so you can fit more into the same space.  They are also rectangular, as most storage spaces are, so whether you’re able to deal with them on pallets or have to hand-stack them yourself, they will stack easily in almost any space.  One huge benefit of bagged shavings vs. bulk is that they won’t blow away while you’re storing or transporting them.  Picture your nice fluffy pile of shavings.  You scoop shovelful after shovelful into a wheelbarrow, losing a few over the side with every scoop.  You wheel the wheelbarrow to the barn and down the aisle, every bounce and every drafty breeze sending more shavings overboard.  Then you finally get to the stall, tip the wheelbarrow, and a few more are floating on the breeze.  With bagged shavings, you load a bag or two into the wheelbarrow at the storage area, wheel them to the destination, unload them, then cut them open and fluff them up, not having lost a single shaving that will have to be swept up later.

Comparing costs

You can purchase shavings in bulk for $X per unit, bags from one source at $Y per bag, or from a different source at $Z per bag.  The two bags LOOK to be about the same size, but you’re not sure…  To be able to compare price, you’ve got to be able to compare apples to apples.  Or cubic feet to cubic feet, anyway.  Sources vary a bit, but a “unit” is equal to somewhere between 7.4 and 7.5 cubic yards.  A cubic yard is 27 cubic feet (3 feet per yard, 3 x 3 x 3 for the cube = 27), so a unit equals approximately 200 cubic feet, give or take a bit (confirm with your sources who use units exactly how many cubic feet or yards they consider a unit to be sure).  Then compare that to the bagged shavings, being sure you are using the UNcompressed volume of the bag, not the compressed volume (the shavings will fluff up after you dump them out of the bag, and as you spread them around the area).  Then you can truly compare pricing per cubic foot from all your potential sources, keeping in mind that safe shavings you’ll be happy to scoop may outweigh pricing considerations in the end.

Get creative

Maybe you’ll do one inch of fine shavings topped with a couple inches of fluffy shavings.  Maybe you want to bed deeply with just one type of shavings, a few inches deep in the middle, plus banked on the sides.  Then consider how much you’ll have to add after a cleaning without re-bedding (larger shavings will have greater loss into the manure pile, whereas the fine shavings mostly stay behind except for the pee spot you remove), as well as how often you plan to completely scrape and re-bed the stall.  For a couple of nights in a show stall, you might want to bed deeply if it’s concrete (maybe 4-5 bags if they’re around 12 cubic feet each), then just keep one extra bag on hand to replace the shavings lost from scooping.  For a run-in the horse barely uses, you can get away with a lot less.

Do you know where your shavings come from?

Make sure that your shavings are manufactured in a facility that is dedicated to making shavings for animal bedding, or at least deals only with untreated raw wood when making shavings. Some companies with a different primary business, such as making cabinetry or wood trim for houses, grind their scraps into “shavings” and sell them as a byproduct. This may work okay for using as mulch in flowerbeds, but since the wood has sometimes been treated with chemicals, and the scraps can sometimes contain metal such as nails, you want to steer clear of that for your precious and delicate animals.

Now that you know the ins and outs of shavings, quit cleaning stalls and get out there and RIDE! 


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