Equine Respiratory Health
A clean and clear respiratory system is essential for a healthy horse. Without it, your horse's ability to work effectively and safely can be dramatically compromised, as his lungs may be unable to provide him with the oxygen his body needs.
What starts out as a transient cough when the horse begins exercising can, over time, become a severely debilitating respiratory disease, with your horse having to fight for every breath he takes.
So, what is the problem?
What has traditionally been know as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Heaves or Broken Wind and most recently referred to as Recurrent Obstructive Airway Disease (ROAD), is a disease of the respiratory system that is caused by a reaction to inhaled allergens.
Wherever we go, the air contains particles of some sort that we all breathe in, but this becomes a problem for your horse when his respiratory system becomes hypersensitive to a particular substance and so he becomes allergic to its presence in the environment. Minute dust and fungal spores present in hay and straw are the most common allergen for horses and can enter the air-ways and cause irritation and the coughing symptoms seen early on in the development of the disease. If not effectively managed, the symptoms can become more serious and the horse can find it increasingly difficult to breathe.
So, what can we do?
Though COPD is a serious disease with a potentially debilitating outcome, the vast majority of afflicted horses can live completely normal, active lives if such allergens are removed from their environment, which is possible with careful and consistent management.
As COPD results from the inhalation of mould spores in hay and bedding, the complete removal of these spores allows for a remission of the disease and can even help to prevent its development in the first place. In cases where COPD has progressed to an extreme state, it may be necessary for your vet to administer appropriate medication, but the essential starting point and core managing principle is to keep the horse in as dust-free an environment as possible.
In an ideal world, we would all have lots of land and the weather would always be fantastic, so we could let our horses live outside 24/7. However, as we don't live in an ideal world, most of our horses have to spend at least part of their day indoors. If we compete on a regular basis our horses may be stabled for even longer periods, as it's very difficult to get a grass-kept horse 100% fit.
The first thing to do is to ensure adequate ventilation in your horse's stable and change your horse's bedding from straw, with its unavoidable mould content, to a dust and mould free alternative such shavings or paper. Rubber matting is another great alternative, but although it's easy to manage and completely dust free, many horses are reluctant to stale on rubber matting and it's just not the same as a nice, soft bed.
Hay is the most common source of fungal spores and even good quality hay can contain many millions of mould spores. As a result, many owners are turning to either pre-bagged haylage or soaking of their hay to ensure minimal exposure to mould spores. While haylage is a nutritious and healthy alternative that horses love, it can be extremely hard on the pocket and is rarely an option for those whose horses are stabled for any significant portion of the week. A second option is soaking hay in cold, fresh water, for as long as several hours depending on the quality of hay, to ensure that all mould spores are dampened down and so cannot be inhaled by the horse. However, this process is not without its drawbacks. Soaking hay is a messy, unpleasant task, particularly in the depths of winter when you end up with freezing hands and dripping wet clothes. At the same time, soaking hay leads to vital minerals being leached out and lost, which must be supplemented back into our horses' diets at considerable expense.
A third alternative is to use a Happy Horse Hay steamer, which does way more than just soaking hay, and without the inconvenience of dustbins full of waste water and heavy, wet hay nets! Designed to be easy to use and maintain, each Hay Steamer system introduces steam to the hay to penetrate at approximately 100 degrees centigrade. Steaming at these temperatures ensures that fungal spores, bacteria and dust mites are killed off (something that is not done simply by soaking) and all potentially airborne dust particles are sufficiently dampened down and neutralized. The hay is then lush and ready for your horse to enjoy, complete with all its vital minerals.