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A Guide To The Horses’ Respiratory Health


Unfortunately, respiratory-related health conditions are one of the leading causes of poor performance in horses. The respiratory system is vital for those that perform, whether in dressage, eventing, showjumping, polo or racing. After all, the respiratory system moves large volumes of air in and out of the lungs every minute. So, how does the respiratory system work and how can we make sure we care for it so our horses can perform to the best of their ability? Let’s take a closer look, below. 

Parts and Functions Of The Respiratory System 

When a horse inhales, the air travels down the trachea that divides into the tubes known as the left and right bronchi, then into smaller airways called bronchioles. The end of the bronchioles is called alveoli, which is where the barrier between the blood and air is effectively a thin membrane. The main function of the respiratory system is to deliver oxygen to the blood and remove carbon dioxide from the body. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs in the alveoli, so when this exchange becomes inefficient, performance and health can be compromised.

To protect itself, the respiratory system warms and humidifies inhaled air and filters out particles. Any large airborne particles land on the mucous lining of the nasal passages. From here, they are carried to the throat to either be coughed out or swallowed. The micro-organisms and small particles, however, are kept at bay by the immune system. 

Horses are nasal breathers so the nasal passages are large and are able to expand during strenuous exercise to increase the intake of air. If the level of oxygen in the blood is too low, the horse will show signs of respiratory distress. The body will attempt to compensate for this by increasing the rate and depth of breathing, contracting the spleen and even increasing blood flow and heart rate. 

The Importance Of Respiratory Heath For The Performance Horse

The performance horse relies on their lungs to provide oxygen that allows energy metabolism to occur and enables muscles to function. Dust and moulds are issues that can affect the health of the horse’s lungs and the main sources of these are bedding and forage based horse feed. Sun-dried forages tend to have higher mould counts than those that are dried artificially. Whilst mould is all around us and at normal levels doesn’t generally cause problems to human or horse health, high levels can be problematic. This is why it is recommended to use cleaner bedding types such as rubber matting or shavings rather than straw and to use haylage rather than hay. Alternatively hay can be steamed or soaked to improve its hygienic status

Artificial drying simply means forages are dried using hot air – a bit like a very gentle tumble drying.  Hot air is blown through the crop so that it is dried in a matter of minutes rather than hours or days if relying on the sun. This way of conserving forages helps to lock nutrients in, in addition to producing consistently clean horse feed

Although many horse owners don’t realise it, some performance feeds actually contain straw, which is a useful ingredient, but not for the performance horse. Therefore, you should try to only feed the right fibre for the right hose and try to avoid feeding straw. 

Are Vitamin C and E Beneficial For Respiratory Health? 

Research has shown that vitamin C is part of the antioxidant defence system of the lungs and is found in the fluid in the lungs which is logical as it is a water-soluble vitamin. Vitamin E on the other hand is a fat-soluble vitamin which also helps to protect the lungs but is found in the lung tissue. Vitamin E is found in conserved forages but declines quickly over time so is usually included in horse feed to ensure the horse’s needs are met. Vitamin C is produced by the horse as long as they receive sufficient fibre in the ration. 

As you can see, it’s important that you take good care of your horse’s respiratory health and if you have any questions you should speak to your vet, who will be able to advise you about your horse specifically. 

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