respiratory health

We humans tend to stay indoors during the winter. If your horse is doing the same, be sure to take steps to protect her respiratory health.

While I am admittedly not a winter person, I have spent many years watching horses enjoying wintery weather. It seems there are some perks to being a horse in winter – you get to grow your own warm coat, your feet don’t seem to get cold, and your humans put you in a nice cozy stall with windows and doors between you and the grim weather. Unfortunately, it’s the inclination to stall our horses, however well-intentioned, that contributes to the abrupt increase in equine respiratory problems in winter. Here’s what you can do to protect her respiratory health.

Heaves can result from poor air quality

Poor air quality inside barns can arise from increased levels of ammonia, dust and mold, as well as reduced ventilation. Not surprisingly, this can result in the onset of clinical upper and lower respiratory problems. Horses with “heaves”, for instance, may show no symptoms in the summer, but become very symptomatic once the cold weather hits and they’re confined to a stable.

Also known as Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), heaves is the most common respiratory disease in horses. It is thought to be caused mainly by an allergy to dust and mold, and unfortunately, there is no cure. Once heaves is established, the best we can hope for is to control the clinical signs, which include increased respiratory rate, wheezing, coughing, nasal discharge, and reduced exercise tolerance.

Heaves can become very severe in some horses, causing them to visibly struggle to get sufficient airflow – a symptom that is typically exacerbated by an indoor environment. It can also make horses vulnerable to secondary respiratory infections, which further contribute to compromised lung function.

Tips to improve air quality and reduce winter respiratory problems

The most effective option for reducing the severity of winter-borne respiratory problems is to increase the amount of turnout as much as possible. Turnout 24 hours a day is the preferred situation – particularly for horses already diagnosed with heaves – but this may not always be possible. If a stall is necessary, time inside should be kept to a minimum.

Other strategies can limit the negative impact of an indoor environment on your horse. If her respiratory health is suffering this winter, give the following a try:

  • Increase ventilation by opening doors and windows. A barn with horses should never be fully closed for a prolonged period of time.
  • Store hay and loose bedding material somewhere away from stalls where horses live.
  • Use bedding that is as low-dust as possible. A couple of great low-dust bedding options include chopped flax and screened “mini-chip” wood shavings.
  • Feed hay as low to the ground as possible to minimize inhalable dust particles.
  • Avoid feeding hay that is visibly moldy or excessively dusty.
  • Steamed hay, or hay that has been soaked for 12 to 16 hours, can be useful for reducing symptoms in horses with heaves.

A stable can be a warm and cozy place on a bitter winter night. But this indoor environment has the potential to contribute to a loss of normal respiratory function in horses, particularly those with recurrent airway obstruction. Implementing a few sensible strategies that reduce the potentially negative effects of indoor air pollution can help support a healthy respiratory system in your equine companion, so you can both breathe a big healthy sigh of relief when spring arrives!

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Wendy Pearson completed an MSc (Nutritional Toxicology) and a PhD program (Biomedical Toxicology) at the University of Guelph with specialization in medicinal herbs and nutraceuticals for horses.  She has accumulated over 20 peer-reviewed research papers, abstracts and book chapters on veterinary natural supplements.  Wendy spent two years as a scientist at a multinational research and development consulting firm, with a specialization in natural veterinary drug development, followed by a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Guelph in clinical nutrition for livestock. Since 2016, Wendy has been employed as Assistant Professor of Equine Physiology in the Department of Animal Biosciences, University of Guelph.