The horse is an amazing athlete. Equine anatomy and physiology mean that horses are primed to be able to move effectively and efficiently, and this is why they make such wonderful companions and sporting colleagues for us.
While there are obvious differences in type and athletic ability within the horse population, combined with differences in how we train, condition, and manage them, fundamentally as a prey animal, our horses are creatures capable of moving quickly in response to stimuli. We can harness this ability in a range of disciplines and activities.
However, one aspect that is critical to the horses’ ability to function and perform well is the health and functioning of their respiratory tract. As the winter months approach, supporting the respiratory health of our horses is critical to maintain overall wellbeing, as well as supporting their performance output too.
Autumn and winter are the seasons of coughs and colds. For us humans, sharing enclosed spaces, spending more time indoors, restricted ventilation and sometimes increased susceptibility to illness can make it more likely that infections are picked up. In many cases, illness is short lived, but occasionally, and the last couple of years has highlighted this, respiratory infections can be a little more serious.
Our horses are also exposed to similar seasonal challenges, some of which can significantly impact on their respiratory health.
Let’s examine what they are and explore how we might best be able to manage them.
The Respiratory System
Our horses’ respiratory system is integral to supporting performance output, but respiratory health and function are also essential for survival.
The respiratory system is how the body obtains oxygen, which is needed for cellular function, and then the waste products of normal bodily processes are excreted – notably carbon dioxide from the respiratory system. Indeed, it is thought that the average horse inhales and exhales approximately sixty litres of air per minute. During exercise, this might increase to more than two thousand litres per minute, highlighting how important respiratory health is for our performance and sporting horses.
The respiratory system is roughly divided into the upper respiratory tract (the respiratory system in the head and throat) and the lower respiratory tract which comprises the trachea (windpipe) and lungs.
The lungs are key in the oxygen and carbon dioxide transfer process. If there is infection, inflammation, or other changes to their structure and function, then the respiratory output of our horses can be significantly affected. If you have ever suffered from a severe chest infection, or asthma, you will be aware of how important normal, healthy functioning is, as well as how distressing and even painful respiratory changes can be.
Unfortunately, our horses can suffer respiratory illness as a result of communicable infections, but they can also be affected by allergies that impact on respiratory function. In addition, the pressures of training, competing and travel can also affect the normal defence mechanisms within our horses’ respiratory system, making them more vulnerable to certain challenges.
‘Dust If You Must’
A serious challenge for our horses during winter is the potential for increased exposure to dust and other airborne substances and particulate matter that can irritate their respiratory systems. This might come from their living environment, including bedding used in stables, or from feed and forage.
Ensuring good management practices are employed for your horses is a simple and highly effective way to support their respiratory health both short and long term.
If you can, deep clean and power wash all indoor housing before use. This can help remove layers of dust, as well as spores and other substances that we want to minimise our horses’ exposure to.
Source forage that is both nutritionally valuable but that looks, feels and smells ‘clean’ with minimal dust. If needed, steaming or soaking forage is an option to reduce possible exposure to dust and other substances that can be inhaled.
Also consider how you feed your horse – whether you are feeding from a hay net or bucket feeding. Feeding from ground level where possible is an easy way to mimic the natural feeding behaviour of the horse and might have benefits for their respiratory system too by allowing respiratory fluid, dust, and potentially pathogenic microorganisms to drain naturally from the upper respiratory tract.
Illness or Allergy?
Signs of respiratory issues can be wide ranging, from apparently mild to severe and significant. Some clear nasal fluid is a normal part of respiratory function, and it is worth becoming familiar with what is normal for your horse.
For day-to-day management, it is useful to know what is normal for your horse in terms of respiratory rate, along with other critical signs of health such as temperature and pulse rate. Normal respiration rate is somewhere between 8 to 16 breaths per minute. Very fit horses will be towards the lower end, while horses in pain, after exercise or suffering heat related effects will have a higher respiration rate.
In the event of respiratory issues, some horses will have only slight nasal discharge in excess of what might otherwise be normal. If nasal discharge becomes excessive, bloody, or purulent, then veterinary attention should be sought as a matter or urgency. Similarly, coughing, raised temperature and signs of pain or respiratory distress should also be examined by your vet.
Abnormal noises from your horse’s respiratory system at rest or during exercise needs exploration. Exercise intolerance or reduced performance output may also signal respiratory concerns, even in the absence of other clinical signs, so should also be investigated.
Sometimes, identifying the cause of respiratory issues can be difficult as both illness and allergies can manifest in respiratory changes. Veterinary support can aid this process and ensure that correct diagnosis, treatment (if needed) and other management strategies can be put into place to support you and your horse.
Respiratory Issues – not just a winter problem
Notably, respiratory challenges do not just occur during the winter months, Pollen season can be a significant issue for many horses who react to airborne pollen or other substances in the environment. Even dust during a hot dry summer can be a respiratory irritant, from ground surfaces, housing, or forage, so management is often important then too.
Supporting respiratory health in our horses...
Respiratory health is critical for our horses to support their overall wellbeing and performance output, not just in winter, but all year round
Here are some of our top tips to support respiratory health:
- Ventilation is essential, even indoors. Stable horses will benefit from good ventilation and indoor arenas should also be well ventilated.
- If you are travelling your horse, ensure there is adequate through flow of air and suitable ventilation, especially if travelling in close proximity to other horses.
- Wherever possible, provide grazing and pasture access, including providing additional forage on the ground to encourage feeding from ground level.
- Have suitable biosecurity and quarantine protocols on your yard, especially for new horses or for horses who are regularly competing.Maintain a consistent management routine, minimising exposure to stressful situations as this may support the health of the immune system.
- Ensure that fresh, clean drinking water is always freely available.
- Consider the use of a respiratory health supplement such as RespirAid DHA from Science Supplements – specifically formulated with key ingredients to support your horse’s respiratory health.
- Feed your horse at ground level to aid normal drainage of the respiratory system whenever possible.
- Coughing is not normal for horses and respiratory symptoms can be a sign of significant illness and potential distress – always seek veterinary advice in such cases or if you are unsure.
Supporting the health of our horses’ respiratory system is key for overall health as well as supporting performance output. Awareness and management are key factors for their wellbeing, especially when seasonal challenges come thick and fast that might compromise respiratory health for our horses.
Let’s help our horses breathe well and breathe freely – they will thank us for it.
Science Supplements offer a premium range of high specification equine supplements that are carefully formulated by nutritionists and veterinary surgeons to support your horse’s overall health and wellbeing.
Respiratory health can be supported through the use of RespirAid DHA as an integral part of everyday management for your horse. In cases where more targeted support might be beneficial, consider exploring RespirAid Express for fast and effective support.