Breathe easy – respiratory health explained

Your horse’s respiratory system is a complex part of his body. If he’s in good health, you probably won’t give it a great deal of notice, but respiratory problems can affect his wellbeing and performance, so it’s important to know what to look out for and how to keep him in the best of health.

Signs and symptoms

Your horse is only able to breathe through his nose, so his nostrils are a good place to start. You’ll notice that, when at rest, he takes 12–20 breaths per minute, with barely any movement in his nostrils. This will increase in abnormal conditions – he’ll breathe more rapidly in hot weather or with exercise. Flared nostrils at rest is a sign there’s something wrong.

Nasal discharge is also an indicator of respiratory health. You’ll rarely see any in a healthy horse, although small amounts of a clear, watery substance during or after exercise is normal. However, increased, thick or smelly mucus could indicate an irritation or an infection.

Although many healthy horses cough occasionally, frequent coughing is another common sign that something’s not quite right. If you notice your horse coughing regularly, speak to your vet to get to the root of the problem.

Be in the know 

Problems occur when your horse’s respiratory system is unable to function properly or efficiently. This can be caused by a number of factors, such as…

  • viruses
  • allergens
  • air quality

These factors place stress on his respiratory system, meaning it has to work harder, but there are lots of simple actions you can take to minimise these and help support his health.

Supporting his respiratory health

Knowledge of what can cause stress to your horse’s respiratory system is an important tool in maintaining and supporting it. Many horses are allergic to dust and fungal spores found in hay and bedding, and horses with prolonged exposure can develop conditions such as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). As well as problems associated with ingesting dust and spores, these allergens can also have an impact on air quality, particularly if you have an enclosed, American barn-style yard and an adjoining indoor school.

Management methods to help combat these issues and support your horse’s respiration include…

  • steaming or soaking hay before feeding to minimize dust and spores
  • making sure he’s got clean, high-quality, dust-free bedding
  • improving ventilation on your yard, which could be as simple as keeping the doors open as much as possible
  • ensuring he’s out of the way when you’re mucking out or sweeping up
  • using a specifically-formulated feed supplement to help support a healthy respiratory system
  • maximising his turnout

If your horse seems susceptible to respiratory problems, consider shaking up his management a bit with a couple of these suggestions. It’s worth talking to your vet to help you formulate a management plan.

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