Keeping your horse’s lungs healthy can be simply achieved with small changes to your barn cleaning methods and feeding practices.

The quality of air your horse breathes, and the health of his lungs, play a huge role in his ability to perform and be competitive. The equine respiratory system is what provides him with his tremendous power and performance. Keeping this vital system robust is critical to maintaining quality of life and longevity.

Small irritants in the respiratory system can cause inflammation and lead to minor symptoms such as a cough and phlegm. Left unchecked, this can lead to serious chronic conditions. You need to be proactive and reduce dust and irritants in the environment to reduce your horse’s exposure to lung irritation and damage.

If your horse has been diagnosed with allergies or a condition that affects his lungs, or you want to maintain air quality in your barn, here are some practical solutions.

Hay handling

One of the most common feeds for horses, hay is also the biggest source of dust in the equine environment. Even the finest, freshest hay has dust. The horse’s anatomy places his nostrils directly near the food he is eating. Protect him by fluffing the hay in a well-ventilated space away from where he eats. You can also consider soaking or steaming the hay. Soaking hay can eliminate much of the dust, but soak it for less than 30 minutes to prevent vitamins and trace minerals from leaching out. Fairly new on the North American market, but more common in Europe, are hay steamers. Steaming not only eliminates dust, but many of the mycotoxins that can lurk within the hay. Steamers produce hay that is warm and silky, with a fresh grass aroma that horses find irresistible.

Feed hay in a low feeder or manger, or on the ground if there are no loose contaminants (like sand) that your horse could consume. A horse bends his head down to eat, and this natural position allows for clearer airways as he ingests the food. Round bales are a popular choice for feeding, but come with their own hazards. Avoid round bales as much as possible because horses will often burrow a hole in them and put their muzzles right into the dusty crevices to pull hay out.

Never move hay from a loft or storage area into a barn when horses are present. Tossing and moving hay creates tremendous quantities of dust particles in the barn. Make sure the horses are well clear of the barn on hauling day and allow several hours for the dust to settle before giving them access to their stalls.

Be careful with bedding

Remove horses from the barn to clean stalls or replace bedding. In the stalls, use dust-free bedding. Bedding that has larger chip sizes and absorbs more water will produce less dust. A freshly-opened bag of bedding may smell good, but creates dust when dumped into a stall. Bedding replacement and other chores are best done when the stall is empty.

Keeping things dust-free

Sweeping up loose hay and debris in the barn is a dusty proposition. If possible, sprinkle the floor surface with water first (watering cans are great for this!), then use a push broom to remove hay and other debris. Leaf blowers are becoming a popular method of clearing hay and debris from a barn, but you can imagine how much dust this blows up into the air and how far it spreads. Consider other methods of clearing the floors, and if a high-powered machine must be used, keep the horses far away.

Once or twice a year, make a project out of clearing away the cobwebs, sweeping up all the corners and hosing down the surfaces of the stalls. Over time, surface dust builds up in a barn, and doing an annual clean sweep will remove a lot of it. Tack on a small task each week during your regular maintenance, such as sweeping off light fixtures, wiping down ledges and cleaning behind bins and feeders. These small chores will positively impact the atmosphere.

A closer look at the facilities

When considering stable and arena facilities, take a close look at the ventilation of the building and study the fresh air access. Spend some time in the stall and study the ventilation and airflow carefully. Ideally, a barn would have air exchange at the ridge and sidewalls that provides fresh air to the horses. A well-ventilated stall has open grillwork on the sides and front of the stall, is open right to the ceiling and has no overhead storage immediately above. Doors and windows that bring fresh air directly into the barn are ideal.

Riding arenas can be very dusty environments, especially if built with connecting stalls. This configuration may be convenient for taking horses in for exercise, but think about the dust that will migrate into those stalls from the arena. Ask about maintenance and cleaning routines and make sure the health of your horse’s lungs is not compromised. Large arenas are prone to becoming dusty during dry seasons and should have watering systems or dust palliative application plans.

Considerations during trailering

How often is your horse in a trailer, and have you considered the air quality when travelling? Any breeze or movement within the trailer will pick up dust, so spray the bedding down with water to prevent dust. Do not use an elevated hay feeder, which puts your horse’s head at a higher angle in addition to creating more dust. If horses must be fed when trailering, soak the hay to reduce dust and lower the hay feeder as much as possible, or use the feed mangers if the trailer is equipped with them.

Look after yourself, too!

It is not just your horse you need to think about protecting — you need to consider yourself and your own fresh air as well. Health conditions arising from poor air quality are a very real risk for farmers and equestrians. Wear a dust mask when you haul hay or are moving large quantities of hay in the barn. You will be shocked to see how much dust the mask captures. When you walk into the barn, pause for a moment and consider the air quality. Does it smell fresh? Is there enough fresh air?

Be an advocate for your horse. Speak up when you observe practices that create an unhealthy atmosphere for you and your horses. Educate the people in your barn about the activities that cause dusty conditions and the effects it can have on your lungs. Set an example for barn cleanliness and feeding habits. Small changes can have big results — your horse will thank you with strong, healthy lungs performing at top condition.


Leah Hurrell has loved and owned horses for many years. She is currently a student at the University of Guelph Equine Diploma program, where she follows her passion of equine health care and behavior. One of her favorite pastimes is trail riding with her horse on Vancouver Island. 

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