Horse stall mats can save time and money, when used in the correct way and for appropriate applications. Unfortunately, they have a bad reputation among some horse owners, due to issues associated with the inappropriate use of them.
The advantages of horse stall mats over other floor surfaces are:
- Yielding. The traditional concrete floor is very hard. Unless you provide a thick layer of bedding, this hardness can stress joints, possibly injure feet, and cause sore points where the horse lays down to rest or sleep. Mats provide a softer and more yielding surface which is more comfortable for horses and less likely to result in impact stress injuries.
- Warmth. The materials used to make horse stall mats are naturally insulating. This is both more comfortable and healthier for horses, especially in winter.
- Traction. Concrete and wooden floors can be slippery when wet; mats provide better traction and thereby reduce the risk of injury to horses.
- Ease of Cleaning. Many mats have a smooth surface, which is much easier to clean than concrete or wood surfaces.
- Sterilization. Stall mats can be easily sterilized with a disinfectant, which is difficult with absorbent surfaces such as wood or earth. Especially in the case of a horse with a contagious disease, the ability to sterilize the stall floor is important.
- Drainage. Unlike concrete, mats allow urine to drain off. Usually this happens at the joints between mats, although a few types of mats allow the urine to drain through the mat itself.
- Bedding. Less bedding is required with stall mats, partly because the mats perform the function of bedding (insulation, soft and comfortable surface, shock absorption, traction) and partly because the ability to drain off urine means that less bedding is soiled. This saves not only on bedding costs, but also in terms of the time and money associated with stall cleaning.
There are two main potential issues with mats:
- Urine buildup under mats. Mat floors are generally made up of a number of individual mats. Urine can drain through the cracks when the mats are joined together. Unless one periodically cleans under the mats, or there is good drainage under the mats, the urine can build up under the mats. The urine then breaks down, releasing ammonia (an unhealthy and unpleasant smelling gas) and odours. See detailed discussion below. You can avoid this by using liquid rubber instead (see rubber stable for details) or sealed cushioned stall floors.
- Inappropriate use. Some horse owners and stable managers use mats in inappropriate ways, leading to various issues. See detailed discussion below.
Where to Use
A mat floor can be laid on top of any hard, non-moving surface such as concrete, asphalt and wooden floors. However, soft surfaces, such as earth or sand, are unsuitable as they can move under the mats, resulting in depressions in the mats. Eventually, this can lead to separations between the mats or even tearing of the mats. Consequently, mats are more a floor covering, rather than a stand-alone floor.
Some mats (the thicker and stronger ones) can also be laid on compacted stone, provided that that stones do not exceed a certain size (large stones can cause bumps or even tears in the mats).
Stall mats can be used as a floor covering almost anywhere, providing the advantages listed at the top of this page (e.g. yielding, insulating, better traction, ease of cleaning & sterilization). In fact, the name 'stall mat' is a bit misleading as there are a number of very good non-stall applications, in the following list of typical applications.
- Trailers, where they provide a superior floor surface for horses, which is particularly benefical for the horses comfort and health on long journeys.
- Shower and cleaning areas, where water can make other surfaces (e.g. wood or concrete) dangerously slipperly.
- Walkways, particularly in professional stables or arenas or other high traffic areas, where the amount of traffic justifies the investment in mats for an improved surface.
- Short term stalls (that is, stalls which your horse will be using for a short period, such as when they are away at exhibitions or short-term training). The use of portable stall mats allow you to place a protective mat over such temporary-use stalls (and save on bedding), and you can then take the mats away when you leave.
- Permanent stall floor covering. Many horse owners put down mats to permanently cover their stall floors, attracted by the advantages of stall mats. The incorrect use of stall mats in this application is the main cause of discontent with stall mats; see the section 'Permanent Stall Mat' below for advice on this specific subject.
Characteristics and Types of Stall Mats
Stall mats vary in types, quality and performance characteristics. Consequently, selecting a stall mat for a specific application and individual requirements requires consideration of a number of factors. The important differences between various stall mats are in terms of:
- Material. The most commonly used material is rubber, although there are different types and qualities of rubber used (largely dependent on manufacturer). There are also non-rubber mats, made out of high-tech materials such as EVA.
- High quality rubber tends to be more expensive, but is more durable. See point 'quality' below.
- High-tech materials such as EVA tend to have somewhat different performance characteristics (e.g. more shock absorbent) and tend to be lighter for a given size. The lighter-weight nature of EVA makes it easier to transport, an important consdieration for mats which are frequently moved.
- Size. Mats usually vary in size from about 30cm square (a square foot) to about 2 square meters (3 square yards). However, we have seen mats up to 12 feet by 12 feet (almost 4 meters by 4 meters), designed to cover an entire stall with a single piece (which weighs 600 pounds or almost 300kg).
- Large mats are heavier (the bigger ones weight 100 Kg. or 200 pounds each) which make placement more difficult. However, their weight and size is an advantage in that it makes them less likely to move once put in place and also less likely for edges or corners to curl up.
- Smaller mats are easier to work with and easier to transport.
- In the event of a tear or other damage, it is cheaper to replace a small mat than a large one.
- Thickness. The thickness varies from about 1 centimeter to over 2 centimeters. Thicker mats have 4 advantages: tend to be more durable, are less likely for the edges to curl, less likely for the mats to move, thickness is usually an indication of quality. However, as thickness increases, so do both price and weight.
- Weight. The weight depends on the type of material (EVA is much lighter then rubber) and the thickness of the mat. Heavy mats are more likely to stay in place, whereas lighter mats are convenient if you are often travelling with your horse (e.g. between horse shows and competitions) and like to take a portable mat with you. One of the advantages of a mat made from EVA instead of rubber is that it weighs only about a quarter as much as rubber, so is more suitable if you need to move it often.
- Interlocking. Some mats interlock, while others have straight edges and rely simply on their weight to hold them in place. All else being the same (size, weight, thickness), the interlocking mats stay in place better and are far less likely for edges to lift. Some mats are designer to lock and unlock easily (for easy transport if you move locations with your horse often) while others are designed to lock firmly in place (making transport more difficult, but providing better performance in static installations). See photo at bottom of page.
- Quality. Like any product, quality varies. A long guarantee (5 to 10 years) is an indication of quality. Thicker mats are usually of better quality than thin ones. Given 2 rubber mats of the same size, if one is substantially heavier it is probably of better quality (the lighter one is probably not pure rubber, but instead rubber mixed with inferior and lighter materials). None of these is an absolute mark of quality, but usually they are good indications. It is also worth checking if the manufacturer has a reputation for producing quality products. Also ask if the rubber has be revulcanized (which is good) or if the rubber has been bound with urethane glue (lower quality).
- Permeable. The mats should not be permeable, which is to say that urine should not be able to enter the surface of the mat. If the materials or production methods are of low quality, the mats may be partly permeable, resulting in urine entering the mat and producing odours.
- Porous. Some mats are porous, allowing urine to grain through. However, the majority are not porous, although urine can drain through the joins where the mats meet. With smaller mats, there are more joins, so the urine tends to run through more. This can either be an advantage or a disadvantage (see discussion below).
- Flat, grooved or footed bottom. Many mats have flat bottoms. With flat bottoms, any urine that gets under the mats (for example, draining through at the joints between mats) can be trapped there. If you have a permeable surface under the mats (e.g. compacted stone) this may not be an issue, but if you have a non-permeable surface (e.g. concrete) under the mats, you do not want to have trapped urine releasing ammonia and odours. With groves or feet, such urine may be able to drain off (whether this happens in practice will depend on factors such as the slope of the underlying surface and whether there are dips in the underlying surface).
- Portable. Some mats are designer to be portable, others are not. Factors to evaluate when considering portability include: weight, size, ability to roll up. If they are interlocking, check that they can be locked and unlocked easily and without special tools.
- Reversible. Some stall mats have a top side and a bottom side, while others can be reversed (flipped over). The advantage of the latter is that when one side shows wear, you can flip them over to extent the lifespan.
- Flat or textured top. Some mats have a flat and smooth top (see photo at bottom of page), while others have a textured top. Smooth tops are easier to clean (the groves or bumps on textured mats tend to trap dirt), while textured tops provide horses with better traction. Some people buy mats with a grooved bottom and then flip them over so that the grooved side is up; this is particularly done for high-traffic areas such as corridors or washing areas (where the water and soap would otherwise produce a slippery surface).
- Cut to fit. Stall mats come in a great variety of sizes. However, to get a close fit, you may need to cut the mats. In this case, before buying the mats, check that they are designed to allow this.
- Price. Prices vary, but as a rough indication look at 20-40 euros per square meter.
If the urine drains through the mats rather than resting on top of them, the amount of bedding which is soiled is greatly reduced. This reduces the amount of time required to clean the stall, reduces the amount of replacement bedding required, and reduces the amount of storage space required for soiled bedding.
Although all of these are important benefits, one must consider what happens to the urine after it has drained through the mats. If the surface underneath has good drainage (e.g. thick layer of crushed stone), then the urine can drain off. However, if the surface underneath is impermeable (e.g. concrete), then the urine simply builds up under the mats, where it can release ammonia into the air (which is unhealthy for horses stabled there, in particular for their lungs) and produce unpleasant smells. Although one could from time to time lift up the mats and clean underneath them, the fact remains the cleaning urine under the mats is more difficult than cleaning urine on top of them.
Consequently, depending on the underlying floor surface you may prefer that urine drains through, or you may prefer that it does not. Depending on your preference, you should chose mats accordingly: small mats drain more than larges ones (joins are closer together and there are more of them), straight edge mats drain more than interlocking, porous mats drain more than non-porous.
If you decide to use mats that easily allow urine to drain through, you should consider the following:
- Choose a mat with grooved or footed bottoms, so that the urine can flow off rather than being trapped.
- Try to have a floor with good drainage. If this is not possible, allow the urine to run off by using a floor which is flat (no dips where urine can pool), smooth (so that liquids run easily) and with a slant so that liquids run off.
- Consider choosing mats whose design and weight allow them to be easily lifted out, permitting periodical washing down of the floor underneath.
A stall with rubber mats is cleaned out in much the same way (hay fork and/or shovel) as any other stall. Many people also periodically use a water hose to wash them down periodically. If the mats have feet or groves underneath, this can also help to flush out urine that has drained through between the joints (see above discussion about drainage).
One can also use a pressure jet. While this is very effective, be careful not to hold the pressure jet immediately against the mat surface as this may damage the mat (your pressure jet manual should state the minimum distance to hold the pressure jet away from surfaces being cleaned).
If your mat must be absolutely clean, other cleaning tools that may be useful are a scrub brush, soap and disinfectant. Before using any chemical product on your mat, just the instructions provided with your mat to make sure that the chemical will not harm it.
One can purchase mats that remain firmly in place. However, some mats (small, thin, light-weight, non-interlocking) tend to move. This can result in spaces between mats. The same type of mats also tend to bulge at the edges. This is best avoided by choosing mats that are not prone to this (large, thick, heavy and interlocking). However, if you have existing mats with this issue, rather than buy new mats you may want to anchor your existing ones, in which case the Anchoring Stall Mats article may be of use.
Permanent Stall Mat
As discussed above (in topic 'Where to Use'), stall mats can be extremely useful in termporarty stalls, horse trailers, showers, walkways and other applications. However, when considering their use in a permanent stall, there are a number of specific advantages and disadvantages which must be carefully considered.
One advantage is that the amount of bedding required is reduced. This is due to:
- The stall mat performs some of the functions of bedding (e.g. soft, insulating surface). Conseqently, one can use less bedding, and still achieve the same results
- Urine can drain off without soiling bedding (see topic 'Drainage' above), reducing the amount of bedding to be mucked out and replaced each day.
- Horses do not like to urinate or defecate on a hard surface. If you provide litte bedding on top of the mats and the horses have free access to a paddock area, over time most horses will reduce the amount they urinate and defecate in the stall, and some horses will stop completely.
This reduction in bedding results in a large time and money saving, which many people find pays for the cost of the stall mats in less than a year. In addition, there are all the other advantages discussed at the top of the page (better insulation, traction and so on).
Problems with stall mats mainly focus on:
- Drainage. As discussed in the topic 'Drainage' above, urine can build up under stall mats, resulting in Ammonia (which is unhealthly and unpleasant for both horses and people) and odours. If you have good drainage under the mats and well ventilated stalls, this may not be an issue. However, if you have a traditional stall floor (i.e. concrete) which does not allow drainage and inadequate ventilation, you may have unacceptable issues with ammonia and odours.
- Mental Stess. Although a rubber mat may meet the physical requirements for a horse (e.g. soft, insulating, good traction) it does not meet its mental needs. Bedding such as straw provides mental stimulation as it has complex visual and physical texture, provides the opportunity for horses to root around for food and feels much like their natural environment of grass fields. A rubber mat meets none of these criteria, resulting in mental stress for the horse. The longer a horse is on a rubber mat instead of normal bedding, the greater the stress. If a horse has free access to a paddock, it is not as bad, but if they are locked into their stalls for long periods it is an unacceptable situation. To avoid this issue, one must put bedding on top of the rubber mat rather than treating the rubber mat as adequate bedding on its own (a mistake many horse owners make).
- Quality. Low quality mats are cheaper, but have a number of potential issues which can lead to dissatisfaction. They are more likely to curl at the corners or rip or absorb urine (resulting in ammonia and smells).
- Wrong Choice. As discussed above, there are many different types of mats. Dissatisfaction can arise when one chooses the wrong type of mat for a given application. For example, one should choose a heavy mat for a permanent stall (so it stays in place) and a light mat which rolls up for portable applications. It is important to consider exactly how one will be using the mat and then select the appropriate type of mat accordingly.
The following photo show how interlocking mats connect together:
The next photo shows mats with textured surfaces, which provide more traction (grip) than smooth mats:
Some mats are designed with an attractive pattern, such as the following two (photo reproduced with kind permission of SoftStallTM) which are designed to look like interlocking bricks (each mat has multiple brick patterns on its surface).