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How can you adapt management to help horses prone to asthma breathe easier?

The healthy horse takes approximately 10-14 breaths per minute at rest. But a horse who is diagnosed with asthma coughs, wheezes, and struggles to breathe normally. Airway inflammation and mucous accumulation associated with this condition make efficient performance nearly impossible for these horses.

Other names have been used to describe this condition – inflammatory airway disease; recurrent airway obstruction, heaves, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

There are many ways by which the management actions around these horses can help, along with adaptations to their environment.

Good Ventilation:

For horses /ponies that are stabled it is important to ensure that they have adequate permanent ventilation equally distributed throughout the stabling environment, and perhaps additionally to open barn doors and windows, as long as this is not creating drafts. Good ventilation supports six to eight air changes per hour. Dust, moulds and bacteria can damage the lungs and airways affecting both performance and quality of life therefore circulation of air in housing and exercise areas is crucial, and particularly so for equines whose airways are already compromised.

Minimise breathing zone exposure to dust:

Ensure stable environments are kept clean and as dust free as possible. Remove cobwebs and regularly clean dusty surfaces.

Remove horses from the stable before mucking out or doing chores like sweeping, blowing, grooming etc. that create dust in the area around the horses breathing zone which can be inhaled causing irritation to the respiratory tract.

Provide good quality forage, and bedding. To mitigate against any possibility of dust it can be a good idea to steam or soak hay before feeding, for short period (30 to 60 minutes) before feeding to reduce respirable particles bearing in mind this also reduces certain nutrient concentrations. Feed soaked hay immediately after soaking to eliminate the potential for mould growth. Feed from the ground so that horses are in a natural feeding position, allowing any mucous / discharge to drain effectively. Clean, hygienic forage and bedding contributes greatly to healthy stable air, great for both horses and humans.

Use of rubber matting may be an option to minimse the requirement for bedding material; however, bear in mind that some forms of matting are interlocking with cracks/gaps between them permitting urine and other liquids to seep underneath and collect beneath the mats. Ammonia then prevails and acts as an irritant to both horses and humans. Good drainage with a slope in the floor toward the drain helps, but these mats need to be lifted regularly and cleaned underneath. Sealed, padded flooring systems are available and are a more expensive, but better option for these horses. Where using straw, or other bedding sources ensure it is of the highest quality, and dust free. Daily mucking out is also very important not to permit build-up of irritating ammonia fumes. Also ensure the dungstead is positioned a healthy distance from the stabling environment.

Take care to store bedding and forage in a way that preserves its quality. Protect from the rain or use a discard barrier layer. Store off the floor on pallets so air can circulate. Do not store in the same airspace as the horses are housed.

If horses are being exercised on artificial surfaces, in a horse walker, lunge ring, or arena perhaps, or maybe an ‘all weather turnout’ take care that surfaces are low-dust and if not are watered before use to dampen down potential dust.

Nature is best, as always. Turn horses out in fresh air as much as possible. ‘Dr Fresh Air’ can work wonders, and ‘Dr Green’ is not so bad either for other reasons. The bonus is, particularly where turned out in company, both their social and mental well-being is also better for the turnout.

Medical intervention:

For some horses it is necessary to additionally provide systemic, or inhaled aerosolised corticosteroids. Any such treatment should be guided by veterinary advice tailored to the specifics of the case in question. However, medical treatment without supplementary environmental management is unlikely to be absolutely effective.


Work with your vet to figure out the best combination of medical, environmental, and management techniques most suited to the horse’s individual symptoms.