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Is it Safe for Horses to Eat Straw Bedding? 

Is it Safe for Horses to Eat Straw Bedding? 

Is it Safe for Horses to Eat Straw Bedding? 

Understanding the Basics: What is Straw Bedding?

Straw bedding, often made from the leftover stalks of wheat, barley, or oats after the grain has been harvested, is a popular choice for horse stalls due to its affordability and availability. It provides a soft, absorbent, and relatively comfortable layer for horses to stand and lie on. However, straw is nutritionally poor compared to hay, which is specifically grown and harvested for animal feed due to its higher nutrient content.

Straw vs Shavings

When it comes to bedding materials, horse owners often find themselves choosing between straw and wood shavings. Shavings are highly absorbent and less likely to be eaten by horses, making them a potentially safer choice. However, they can be more expensive and may cause respiratory issues if the dust is not adequately controlled. Straw, on the other hand, is generally more affordable and dust-free but makes stall cleaning a bit more difficult. Although straw is much less popular to be used as a bedding material in the US, many stables in the UK and Europe still use straw bedding exclusively. 

Why Horses Eat Straw: Unveiling the Reasons 

Horses may be inclined to eat straw bedding for a variety of reasons. Some horses may simply find the taste appealing, while others may resort to eating straw due to boredom or inadequate forage intake. In some cases, it could signal that the horse's diet is lacking essential nutrients. 

Why Feeding Straw is Generally Safe

Straw can serve as a dietary supplement for horses, especially in circumstances where roughage sources are limited or the quality of available hay is poor. Its low nutritional content makes it less suitable as the primary feed, but it can be a valuable filler when other forms of nutrition are provided. When fed appropriately, and in moderation, straw can be safely consumed by horses.

Digestive Complications from Eating Straw 

Despite its general safety when fed appropriately, the consumption of large amounts of straw can lead to digestive issues in some horses. Straw has a high lignin content and lower digestibility compared to hay, making it harder for horses to break down and process. This can lead to impaction colic, a severe and potentially life-threatening digestive disorder. Overconsumption can also lead to weight loss and nutrient deficiencies over time due to its low nutritional content. A number of studies have shown that horses fed exclusively straw are more likely to experience impaction colic and gastric ulcers. 

Types of Straw: Which are Safer for Horses to Eat?

Various types of straw are used for horse bedding, including wheat, barley, and oat straw. Oat straw tends to be the most palatable for horses but also has the highest potential for causing digestive issues. Wheat straw is less appealing to horses and is less likely to cause digestive problems, but it is also less absorbent as bedding. Barley straw falls somewhere in the middle in terms of palatability and potential health risks.

Straw vs. Hay: A Comparative Look at Equine Digestion 

When comparing straw and hay, hay is the superior choice for providing nutrition to horses. Hay is harvested from nutrient-rich grasses, legumes, or a mix of both, making it a vital source of fiber and nutrients for horses. Straw, on the other hand, is primarily the stalks left over after the grain heads have been harvested, and its nutritional value is considerably lower. The fiber in hay is also more easily digested by horses, reducing the risk of colic and other digestive issues. As such, straw can act as a good filler forage for overweight or IR/ ER horses. 

Preventive Measures: How to Stop a Horse Eating its Straw Bedding

Tips to Deter Horses from Eating Straw Bedding 

One of the most effective ways to stop a horse from eating straw bedding is to ensure that they have adequate access to quality hay or other forms of roughage. Horses may resort to eating straw when they are not receiving enough fiber in their diet. If you're already providing sufficient hay and your horse continues to eat straw, consider increasing feeding frequency rather than the volume of each meal. This can mimic the horse's natural grazing behavior and keep them occupied, reducing the temptation to eat straw.

Additionally, providing enrichment items like toys or treat-dispensing balls can offer mental stimulation and reduce boredom, a common reason for straw-eating behavior. Regular exercise is also crucial as it helps alleviate stress and boredom, further reducing the likelihood of undesirable behaviors like eating bedding.

Alternatives to Straw Bedding

If your horse persistently consumes their straw bedding despite implementing the aforementioned strategies, it might be time to consider alternative bedding options. Wood shavings, for instance, are a popular choice and are typically unappealing for horses to eat. They are highly absorbent and comfortable, providing a suitable alternative to straw.

Rubber mats are another option, providing comfort and ease of cleaning, although they may need to be used in conjunction with another form of bedding to ensure proper absorption of urine.

Peat moss, hemp, and paper products are also used as horse bedding, each with their unique benefits and drawbacks. The best choice will depend on your specific circumstances, including availability, cost, storage space, and your horse's preferences. Remember to introduce new bedding gradually and monitor your horse for any signs of discomfort or allergic reactions.

The Verdict: Should Horses Eat Straw Bedding?

While it's not harmful for horses to eat straw in moderation, horse owners need to monitor the situation closely. Straw, especially oat and barley straw, contains high levels of indigestible lignin, which can lead to digestive complications like impaction if consumed in large quantities. Wheat straw has a lower nutritional value and is often less appetizing to many horses, making it a safer choice for bedding. However, no matter the type of straw, the best preventive measure is ensuring your horse has access to plenty of high-quality hay or haylage. This satisfies their natural feeding behavior and provides the roughage necessary for a healthy digestive tract.

Investing in a hay net or feeder can keep your horse occupied, reducing the chances they will resort to eating their bedding. If your horse persists in consuming straw, consider alternative bedding materials such as wood shavings, which are typically less appealing to eat. Also, ensuring your horse has ample turnout time to graze in pasture can help curb their tendency to eat straw.

Remember, every horse is unique. Some horses, especially "good doers," might need their feed intake carefully managed to avoid conditions such as laminitis. Be sure to provide constant access to water, especially if your horse consumes straw, as this can help prevent digestive issues. With careful monitoring and adaptive feeding practices, it's entirely possible to maintain your horse's health and wellbeing, even if they occasionally decide to snack on their straw bed.

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