Breathing Easy

I saw an article online a couple of weeks ago that said you shouldn’t assume a horse who coughs at the beginning of all rides.

A lot of horses I know will have a cough or nose blow when they start working. One of them always has a cough, stops, snorts and then wipes her nose on her leg. 

It’s always worth keeping an eye on any coughing or spluttering. It may be that their hay needs dampening in winter, or that they are acclimatising to a drier environment when they are stabled. But then again, it could be a mild virus or bacterial infection. Telling the vet and having them check your horse annually when you have injections done, and if you feel the coughing is changing over the year then it’s worth getting the vet to check them over. After all, a reduced lung capacity reduces their work capacity. 

As well as the obvious coughing you hear when exercising, it’s also worth keeping an eye on your horse’s respiration rate, and his recovery after exercise. The average resting respiration rate is eight to sixteen breaths per minute. A horse who pants a lot, or seems to take longer than usual to recover after exercise might have an impaired respiratory system and definitely worth monitoring. 

Then of course you have those horses who breathe forcefully, with a double expiration to fully expel the air from the lungs. These horses usually develop strong abdominal muscles, called a heave line, and suffer from Recurrent Airway Obstruction. This is similar to asthma in humans, and the horse cannot tolerate much dust in their environment. The vet definitely needs to be involved in this case to help provide medicine and to help monitor and manage the condition. 


Some horses are loud breathers anyway. One cob I school often sounds like he’s having an asthma attack. His breathing quietens as he’s become fitter, but when his breathing gets louder and wheezier when I’m riding, I tend to let him have a walk break.

Another horse I know is a “roarer”. That means that he suffers from laryngeal hemiplegia. The problem most often occurs in tall, young horses, and is usually first identified when they begin serious exercise for an athletic career. Thoroughbreds are the most commonly affected and sufferers tend to be over 16hh.
Laryngeal hemiplegia is a permanent condition, and is when the nerve to the arytenoid cartilage doesn’t function properly and the cartilage is not drawn to the side of the airway, meaning that air whistles around it causing the roaring noise. Interestingly, it is usually only the left side that is partially paralysed, and only in some cases is the right side affected as well. 

Horses who suffer from roaring can usually continue in hacking and light work, but if they work harder and struggle to breathe then the Hobday operation can be performed. This involves “tying back” the paralysed cartilage so that the airway is always open.

Another horse I know seems to suffer from hay fever. Since the spring she has been “snuffly” and seems less tolerant of exercise. Her owner now feeds her a supplement to aid respiration which seems to help the mare. It will be interesting to see if it disappears in the autumn.

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One thought on “Breathing Easy

  1. Elizabeth Hanson August 26, 2016 / 2:24 am

    Great article. It is great reminder to pay attention to what is going on with our horses.

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