Managing Equine Asthma During the Winter Months

Cold weather horse-keeping creates added challenges for asthmatic horses. Here are tips to help.

In much of the United States, winter weather and shorter days mean horses will spend more time inside. For those animals with equine asthma, living and working indoors can exacerbate clinical signs of the disease, making it even harder for them to breathe. But there are management practices you as an owner can adopt to keep asthmatic horses comfortable during the winter months.

Equine asthma describes chronic inflammation of horses’ lungs. Commonly known as “heaves,” equine asthma causes labored breathing, nasal discharge, and coughing, all of which are worse during exercise. The disease is irreversible and threatens a horse’s performance ability, as well as his general comfort and welfare. Your veterinarian can diagnose equine asthma in your horse and prescribe medications and certain nutritional supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, to help control clinical signs. Targeted management practices that protect your horse’s “breathing zone” are also essential.

  • Open your barn doors and windows whenever possible. We know certain regions of the country have severe winter weather, which means you must close up the barn. However, good ventilation that moves fresh air through the stable is important for horses with compromised respiratory systems.  
  • Feed your horse in a natural head-down feeding position. Inhaling pollen and dust particles worsen asthma in horses, so veterinarians advise against feeding asthmatic horses from raised hay racks or hay nets that allow dust to fall into a horse’s nostrils when they are foraging. Savvy Feeders keep hay at ground level, which makes them an excellent solution for feeding asthmatic horses.
  • Soak or steam your hay. Soaking or steaming forage removes or weighs down dust particles and pollen that can irritate your horse’s respiratory tract if inhaled. And, yes, you can use The Savvy Feeder to offer your horse steamed or soaked hay, because our feeders are designed to drain excess water. When feeding wet hay, we recommend selecting a larger grate opening size than you would use for dry hay. You’ll also want to wipe out the feeder on a regular basis to avoid spoilage.
  • Don’t clean, sweep, or use a leaf blower in your barn while your horse is inside. We all like a tidy barn. However, cleaning the barn aisle kicks up a tremendous amount of dust and residual hay. To protect your asthmatic horse, move him outside before you start cleaning and wait for the dust to settle before bringing him back inside.
  • Avoid riding in dusty indoor arenas. Rain, snow, mud, and ice often force our riding inside during the winter, but breathing in dust—especially during exertion—can make equine asthma worse. However, arena-footing management can become challenging in freezing weather for those of us who use water to douse dust (hello frozen hoses and busted pipes!). If you must ride your asthmatic horse inside, try doing so during low-traffic times at your barn or immediately after the footing has been watered and worked. Dust-management additives, such as magnesium chloride, can also help hold moisture in footing. Other non-water-based products can add weight to or bind footing particles and might also be an option for dust control.
  • Minimize or eliminate ammonia in horses’ stalls. That “pee” smell in barns is actually ammonia, a noxious gas that results when urine, and even manure, breakdown. Breathing it in is bad for both horse and human respiratory systems, and it’s especially problematic for horses (and people!) who have asthma. Ammonia is also heavier than oxygen and tends to linger near the floor, where horses eat and sleep. Cleaning stalls meticulously and frequently is the best way to reduce ammonia levels. You can also use a stall freshener that chemically neutralizes ammonia. Additionally, pieced-together stall mats allow urine under them and can be difficult to clean. If possible, instead use a single-piece mat system in stalls housing horses with asthma.

To learn more about equine asthma, please visit the American Association of Equine Practitioners website and talk to your veterinarian.