Ammonia is a stealthy compound that impacts even the most pristine equine facilities. A smell so powerful would normally cause a knee-jerk reaction in the brain’s amygdala region. But due to sensory adaption, our awareness of ammonia odor is reduced after prolonged exposure, causing us to dismiss it.
URINE – Sterile clear to yellow liquid from the kidneys that eliminates water, salt and other waste products not processed by the body into energy.
AMMONIA – When excess protein is not metabolized by the horse, it’s shed in urine in the form of urea. Bacterial activity breaks down urea, creating ammonia gas, a chemical that burns the nostrils and lungs.
THE DANGERS OF AMMONIA POISONING
Ammonia is a caustic, corrosive gas that is poisonous when inhaled in high concentrations. Some signs of ammonia poisoning in horses and humans are:
- burning, watery eyes
- nose and throat irritation
- difficulty breathing
Over time, ammonia poisoning can cause blindness, permanent lung damage and even death.
NATURAL WAYS TO REDUCE AMMONIA
Many people think ammonia is a necessary component of the equine business. IT’S NOT! Tackling ammonia means implementing:
- proper diet for your horse
- good bedding
- one-piece stall mats
- stall amendments
- proper cleaning
- good ventilation
- more turnout time
- regular testing
A balanced diet equals less ammonia. Speak with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to make sure you’re providing your horse with the nutrients he needs.
Good bedding is a necessity for horses that spend a lot of time indoors. It provides absorption, moisture control, and acts as a barrier to noxious gases.
Besides reducing the presence of ammonia, the right bedding can also help prevent high concentrations of mold, viruses, spores, bacteria, allergens, dust and endotoxins.
ONE-PIECE STALL MATS
These lack seams, thereby minimizing the shifting, sliding and lifting that urine wetness can seep through. Multi-seamed mats allow for urine puddling underneath, creating a temperate moist breeding ground for fungus and noxious ammonia.
Because ammonia needs moisture to produce odor, stall amendments can be of great benefit.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) — Soft sedimentary rock ground into a fine powder, DE has a unique pH that neutralizes ammonia. It’s also very absorptive. Look for a product with a pH of less than 6 to neutralize ammonia.
Clinoptilolite (zeolite) — A type of mineral that traps liquid and odor molecules in its honeycomb-like structure. Changes ammonia to ammonium then releases it as nitrogen.
Hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) — Though often spread on stall floors to absorb moisture and remove ammonia odor, it’s highly corrosive and can burn nostrils, eyes and hooves. It may even increase the alkaline level in bedding and actually create more ammonia gas.
Barn lime (calcium carbonate) — Otherwise known as dairy lime, barn lime is crushed limestone. It looks pretty but doesn’t do much for drying or odor control.
Keeping stalls clean and dry goes a long way to reducing ammonia. Increase the rate of cleaning during inclement weather or periods of greater barn occupancy during recoveries, etc. When you muck a stall, remove wet bedding and lay down a heavy dose of stall deodorizer. Apply fresh, dry bedding.
Passive (natural) ventilation means orientating barn doors and windows toward the prevailing wind and keeping them open to create airflow, perpetually renewing the air throughout the barn. Ceiling baffles, ridge vents and wall louvers are other options.
Active (mechanical) ventilation — the use of fans — isn’t common in horse barns, but can make the difference between a hot dank barn and a fresh- smelling one with low ammonia levels. Strategically-placed fans directed with the prevailing wind will pull heat, airborne pathogens, moisture, ammonia and carbon monoxide outside. Place fans high and out of reach in stall corners and on ceilings.
The more time horses spend outside, the less opportunity they have to urinate in their stalls. If your horse tends to urinate in one spot, try training him to pee mostly outside by placing his wet bedding outdoors where you want him to “go”.
In their article “How to Do Air Quality Testing in the Equine Barn”, Tuft’s University suggests testing stall air quality with a cyclone device or laser photometers. Otherwise, the best way to check the ammonia level in your barn is to get low and sniff!