Floors may be the foundation of a horse stall. But with many different types of flooring available, advice on the best choice can vary.
Experts do agree on some basics: The ideal floor should be easy on horses’ legs, dry and slip-resistant, durable and level, without retaining odors or being difficult to clean and maintain. Oh, and affordability would be a plus for many horse owners.
After that, owners have a choice of flooring materials that are porous (so that water and urine migrate to the ground below the barn) or impervious (with enough slope to drain moisture away). Either way, bedding can absorb the excess so that actual liquid runoff is kept to a minimum.
Common choices among impervious flooring are concrete, asphalt, and solid rubber mats. “But the disadvantage of concrete or asphalt alone,” advises Jay Dykstra, director of sales and marketing for Agromatic, a distributor of rubber flooring based in Fond du Lac, Wis., “is that it’s hard on horses’ hoofs, joints, and ligaments.” Because concrete and asphalt are unyielding, the lack of any “give” puts a strain on the animals’ legs.
Owners might opt instead for a loose flooring material, but here “the disadvantage is that loose surfaces are dusty and they absorb moisture and start to smell,” Dykstra continues. “And every horse has its own individual travel pattern, so that the animals tend to make divots in loose surfaces.”
According to Dykstra, a padded surface such as a rubber mat provides some “give” and thus “gets rid of the disadvantage of concrete and asphalt.” By the same token, he says a padded mat placed over loose material “will even out over the surface, and keep down the dust and urine absorption.”
Not All Rubber is Alike
Agromatic offers rubber mats that interlock, a design that “holds the seams together, as opposed to two mats that are simply butted up together,” Dykstra notes. He acknowledges that “with any seam you’ll get some urine that goes through,” yet the addition of bedding material will absorb much of any excess moisture. On the other hand, a combination of rubber mats and bedding will also reduce the amount of bedding material needed, as compared to bedding alone without any mat.
Dykstra recommends rubber mats over concrete as the best flooring combination. But he cautions that not all rubber mats are the same. Those on the market today, he explains, are made of vulcanized rubber, crumb rubber, or ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA). He characterizes the latter as “soft, affordable and lightweight, but not very long-lasting.” Crumb rubber is likewise softer than vulcanized, but also less durable.
“It seems like most companies are offering vulcanized rubber for the equestrian market,” Dykstra observes. “There’s a temptation to go with a low-priced product if you think that all rubber is alike. But inferior rubber starts to turn from black to white due to chemical breakdown, while the edges curl up due to drying out. So the mats must be replaced more often.”
How can a builder tell the difference between high- and low-quality rubber? “It can be hard to tell the difference,” Dykstra admits. “I like to take a piece, bend it in half for awhile, and see how long the mat takes to return to its original shape. Also, I look at the side profile of the mat to check for any holes, pockets, or cracks that might indicate flaws in the vulcanization process. You can also take some sandpaper and see how well the rubber resists abrasion.”
Of course, Dykstra points out, checking the manufacturer’s track record and talking to other builders who have installed their products is always a prudent course.
Most people’s concept of rubber mats are the flat surfaces they used in high school gym class. But Agromatic offers textured mats, with the texture designed “to keep as much rubber as possible in contact with the horse’s hoof, while also allowing water to drain away from the hoof,” Dykstra explains. “When the hoof comes on the mat, you want the pressure to drive waste away from the hoof. So traction isn’t the only issue involved with surface texture.”
Horse barn builders may be familiar with the rubber bricks often used for aisleways. But Dykstra cautions against using these products for stalls. “The bricks have small capillaries that can clog up,” he relates.
Though builders may be tempted to think that all rubber is alike and the substance’s basic nature is unchanging, Dykstra says, “The best companies constantly try to improve the chemical composition of their products. It’s true that it doesn’t take very much to get some rubber crumbs and vulcanize them. But many different rubber compounds are possible and they all have different properties.”
Agromatic, for example, is in the process of discontinuing two rubber mat products that have been in the equestrian market for 20 years. “Our engineers simply came up with a better composition for traction and durability,” Dykstra reports. He acknowledges that builders may be attracted to buying all of their horse barns products — from stall fronts to weather vanes — from the same supplier. “But it’s worthwhile,” he counsels, “to search out the best flooring rather than just do one-stop shopping.”
At Country Manufacturing of Fredericktown, Ohio, president Chad Chattin agrees that “concrete is a popular substrate — provided it’s sloped for drainage — to go under a rubber mat.” Other substrates he often sees are packed limestone, “which costs less than concrete and is porous,” as well as various ground-stabilizing systems such as rolls or squares of plastic.
Chattin likewise concurs that builders have a wide choice of rubber mats on the market today. Country Manufacturing, which fabricates steel horse barn equipment, also sells 3/4-inch-thick rubber mats in 4×6 sections. At that size, each section weights 100 pounds and it takes six sections to floor a 12×12 stall.
“You can use lighter mats, but they’re also lighter duty,” Chattin advises. These lighter-weight mats often feature interlocking edges to prevent them from curling. By contrast, he says, heavier mats lie flat and stay in place, yet for installation can still be easily cut to size with even a razor blade. “Remember, we’re talking about a 1,200-pound animal standing on a circle that’s only 4 inches around,” he explains. “If one mat weights 100 pounds and another weighs 62 pounds, which one has the densest rubber?”
Like others, Chattin reiterates that hard floors are hard on horses’ legs. “Concrete or stone is rough on horses, so rubber mats provide some ‘give’ and also save on floor maintenance,” he notes. But while he sees concrete substrates and rubber mats as a good combination, he is less enthusiastic about putting rubber over dirt.
“Dirt floors are still the most common,” he says, “but you’ve got to take the time to check the dirt and then fill in any holes.” The potential problem with placing rubber mats over dirt, Chattin observes, is that “divots can get hollowed out in the dirt under the mat, which can be dangerous for the horse.”
Going with the Flow
Porous floorings in use today include topsoil, clay, sand, crushed stone, and wood. Yet among porous offerings, grid mats also have a following. Equustall Stable Floor Systems of Richmond, Va., has sold them for 20 years and, reports sales manager Linda DiLoreto, has customers in nearly all 50 states.
Grid mats, DiLoreto explains, “offer a permanent solution. You can put them over soil or over concrete, if the concrete drains well.” The high-density polyethylene mat is laid down on the substrate. Then the cells of the grid are filled with good drainage soil and bedding placed on top. As porous flooring, the grid mats drain away urine and “let you save from one-third to one-half on your bedding,” she states.
Though grid mats cost about $100 more per stall than some other products, DiLoreto says the investment is paid back within three years due to savings on bedding and maintenance. “You can clean the stalls more easily,” she contends, “and go ride your horse rather than work for it.”
Her concern with rubber mats is their tendency, DiLoreto says, to hold urine and provide no air flow through the flooring system. “When that happens,” she believes, “you end up with a science project growing under your mat.” Further, she says that rubber mats must be replaced every five to 10 years, “and there’s a constant process of filling in sumps that develop” in the soil under the mat as horses paw the floor and walk about.
Because the cells in the Equustall grid mats are 2-3/4 inches square, DiLoreto explains, “not even a miniature horse will get its hoofs stuck in the cells.”
In the end, it comes back to the basics: easy on the legs, dry and slip-resistant, durable and level, without retaining odors or being difficult to clean and maintain. Whether the choice of flooring is porous or impervious, the safety of horses and the convenience of owners demand no less.