Prevent Respiratory Stress on Your Horses in Cold Weather

Care : Seasonality

Care : Health Issues

Karen E. Davison, Ph.D.

Director, Nutritionist, Equine Technical Solutions

Basic horse care tips to help improve respiratory health in the barn during the winter months.
5 tips for winter respiratory health infographic.While we certainly feel more comfortable bundled up inside on a cold winter day, our horses may not. A significant amount of effort goes into keeping our horses’ toasty in their stalls, but their respiratory health may be negatively affected.
Prevent decreased performance, coughing and breathing trouble by taking a few simple measures when caring for horses in cold weather:
  • Horse barn ventilation
  • Provide plenty of turnout
  • Limit working horses in cold weather
  • Proper equine nutrition

Feeding horses in winter for a healthy respiratory system

The most effective way to reduce the effects or prevent horse non-infectious respiratory disease is decreasing exposure to respirable irritants and working horses in freezing temperatures on a limited basis. If horses cannot be kept outdoors, then the focus needs to be on reducing airborne particles in your feeding program.
Here are a few tips:
  • Feed low-dust feed
  • Feeding hay in feeders at ground level as opposed to hay racks above the grain
  • Thoroughly soak the hay in water and feed wet to reduce dust and molds adequately
In many cases, horses affected by respiratory irritants don’t show improvement until the hay is entirely replaced by feeding a complete feed with built-in forage. Purina® Omolene® 400 and Equine Senior® horse feeds are low-dust feeds with quality fiber sources included to replace hay. Many horses with respiratory problems cannot tolerate any hay, even wet hay, and do much better eating one of these products. Keep in mind that horses eating hay in adjoining stalls can still cause problems for affected horses.

Horse barn ventilation is a critical component in winter horse care

Barns are often built for warmth and protection more than for airflow and ventilation. The measurement of particulate matter in horse barns has shown potential danger for horses stabled in barns. Everyday barn chores can potentially contain damaging levels of airborne organic dust. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
  • Horse barn ventilation design
  • Storing hay in the barn
  • Storing bedding in or near the barn
  • Equipment exhaust
  • Cleaning stalls
  • Sweeping or blowing barn aisles
  • Dust from an attached indoor arena
When evaluating air quality, airborne particles in numbers greater than 2.4 mg/cubic meter (M3) of air have been shown to increase the incidence of airway disease. All these airborne particles can begin to wreak havoc on respiratory function in stabled horses.
Non-infectious respiratory disease with airway inflammation in horses is a common clinical problem when horses are stabled. Some studies suggest that 25–80 percent of stabled horses suffer from Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), commonly known as heaves, and Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD). Horses may suffer from chronic coughing, decreased performance, difficulty breathing, and abnormal lung sounds. Signs do not become apparent until a large number of airways are affected and, therefore, may affect more horses than realized. Once this particulate matter is in the airways, the body sees it as foreign material and mounts an inflammatory response. As the airways thicken, there is reduced oxygenation of blood, breathing becomes more labored and horses with RAO will begin to develop a “heave line” along the lower abdomen. This heave line is the result of increased muscle development as horses work harder to force air out of the lungs with each exhale.

Working horses in cold weather

Horses have an amazing respiratory system that is exceptionally equipped to function during exercise. When the air being inhaled contains high numbers of respirable organic particles, the potential for irritation elevates. Add exercise on top of that, such as training in an indoor arena during the winter, the increased respiration rate has the ability to cause deeper penetration of particulate matter in the lungs. In addition to air quality concerns, winter also brings frigid air temperatures. Research by Elfman, Pringle, Raine, and Riihimäki (2008) has shown that cold weather exercise can cause asthma-like airway disease in performance horses. Repeated work in frigid cold temperatures can also lead to chronic airway inflammation.
Any time you notice coughing or labored breathing in your horse, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a thorough exam to determine the cause and the appropriate course of action to provide relief.
Ready to try a Purina® feed with your horse? Sign up for the Feed Greatness® Challenge.*
The Feed Greatness® Challenge is a 30-day feeding trial where you will feed Purina® feed, monitor your horse's performance and health, take pictures and receive emails with helpful information.