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The season of cleaning begins March 20th with longer days well spent improving stable air quality.
Written by Kim F. Miller
Wednesday March 20th brings the slightly longer days heralded by the Spring Equinox and spring itself. With it comes the urge to purge, clean and de-clutter. Barns big and small benefit from an at-least annual application of serious broom, vacuum, elbow grease and re-organisation. Horses benefit from it most of all, not to mention their human keepers. Easier breathing for both awaits both after this task is done.
Clean air is critical to horse’s health, happiness and performance, but the equine environment is a challenging place to maintain it. Especially so where cold, wet winters mean horses are indoors more than normal. Along with warmth, shut barn doors seal in respiratory risks found in even top-quality hay and bedding. Air pollutants have nowhere to go but round and round and into the horse’s airway and lungs.
Those nagging coughs and running noses that elude diagnosis? Poor air quality is likely the cause. There’s increasing scientific evidence proving the shocking prevalence of Inflammatory Airway Disease in horses, higher than 80 percent of active sporthorses have it to some degree. Most recently, a study published in The Journal of Internal Veterinary Medicine established a clear link between fungi in the airways and IAD incidence. Fungi is one of those microscopic, inhalable particles borne by hay and straw.
Eliminating straw and providing horses Haygain Steamed Hay were the strongest environment-related recommendations from the study’s authors when it comes to reducing fungi-related respiratory problems. Beyond that, there are many simple ways to clean up stable air and greatly reduce respiratory risks.
Start at the top
Things will get worse before they get better. The first step toward clean stable air is the messy process of shaking loose dust and dirt from rafters, corners and behind and underneath piles of hay, trunks, doors, equipment, etc. Horses should be nowhere near this endeavor. Pick a day when you can turn horses out or keep them somewhere else, well away from the stable. Mind your own respiratory health, too. Consider a surgical mask or tie a bandana over your nose and mouth to keep out the big particles.
It’s a good day to wear clothes you don’t care about ruining.
Use a broom and ladder to rid the rafters of spider webs and nests. Nesting birds might seem harmless guests, but they’re also disease carriers. Plus, the straw, mud, bits and bobs used to construct their nests add to air quality challenges.
Spiderwebs, dust, lint and fibers are also nasty fire threats: another reason to sayonara them from the stable.
Work your way down each stable wall, looking for loose nails and baseboards, splintered wood and other dangers. Plan ahead to strip stall bedding near the end of its life cycle. Haul out loose stable mats and powerwash them outside, ideally with a disinfectant, and let them air dry completely. Examine the floor for depressions that are or could become places for urine to accumulate, with the unhealthy ammonia odors that come with that. The floor underneath water buckets and stable mat seams are common wet spots. Let them dry out completely, using a fan to accelerate the process if the base is hard packed enough not to fly loose and add more dust to the air. Then level the surface by filling the holes with an absorbent base material.
Dry depressions in the floor often result from the horse pawing excessively. That could be a symptom for something as simple as boredom or as serious as anxiety, stress or physical discomfort. Monitor that behavior and ask a veterinarian about it.
Check the hardware on stable doors, feeders, waterers, etc., to ensure no sharp spurs have emerged. Test that sliding doors are running smoothly in their tracks.
Moving into the barn aisle, haul tack boxes and other equipment away from the wall to remove the dirt and debris behind it. Empty trunks and storage cabinets and do a brutal round of “keep, toss or donate?” before checking that “keeper” items are in good shape. If so, clean them and return them. Do the same in the tack room and grooming area. It’s a great time to examine all saddle, bridle and other tack parts for signs of unusual wear or threat of breakage, followed by another round of “keep, toss or donate?”
Stand back and examine the big picture of each barn aisle, tack room and grooming area. Is there a “place for everything and everything in its place?” Blankets, bandages, grooming supplies? If not, consider what combination of shelving, cabinets and storage bins are needed to achieve that.
Keep it clean
Getting the barn clean is one thing and keeping it that way is another. Happily, many challenges can be mitigated by proactive stable management, especially your approach to two of the biggest culprits in poor air quality: shavings and hay.
Stable conditions are ground zero for air quality. Daily removal of manure and soiled bedding is the obvious starting point, but thinking beyond that to what’s underneath that bedding is the key to long-term clean air.
The aforementioned Inflammatory Airway Disease study described wood shavings as much better than straw bedding, but “more is better” does not apply to shavings when it comes to clean stable air. People see a nice, cushy surface to support their horse’s sweet dreams, but the horse’s lungs see an onslaught of respiratory irritants that come with that deep bedding.
Padded and sealed flooring systems like those pioneered by ComfortStall are an ideal way to reduce bedding requirements to only that needed to absorb urine. They provide plenty of cushioning without compromising air quality. And, preventing urine from seeping below the flooring, as happens with individual mats, also prevents the build-up of urea and bacteria that leads to ammonia, a major airway irritant. While upfront installation costs are nothing to sneeze at, they are quickly recouped (usually in less than a year) by decreases in stable maintenance and bedding purchase and disposal expenses. Best of all, horses and their humans breathe easier.
Absorbent base materials like D&G are better options than dirt-only flooring, and rubber stable mats are helpful except where gaps exist between them.
Moving on to hay, even the highest quality, most expensive varieties arrive with fungi, spores, bacteria and allergens that compromise equine respiratory health – and yours, too.
Checking hay before buying it, or on arrival, for discolorations or odors that indicate mould is an obvious first step. Next is storing it in a well-ventilated, rodent-free area, separate from where the horses live. Bales should be elevated off the ground to prevent moisture accumulation: wooden shipping pallets are handy for this.
Buying large quantities of hay often secures the best per-bale price. Balance that with the prospect of having to store hay so long that its dust, allergen and irritant content increases. Local climate and the bale’s original moisture content are the main variables that affect how long hay can safely be stored.
Steaming is the best way to rid hay of its respiratory risks. By injecting high volume steam, at a temperature exceeding 100° degrees centigrade, thermal hay steaming chests reduce breathable particles up to 99 percent. The process also kills mould, bacteria, fungal spores and mites that are likely IAD triggers.
Ventilation is a horsekeeper’s best friend in maintaining clean air in the stable. Capitalise on it by making dust, debris and cobweb removal a regular part of the barn maintenance routine, minimising its quantity in circulating air. Horses thrive in temperatures colder than what humans generally prefer. Forty-five to 75 degrees is a comfortable range for most, so keep barn doors and windows open even if you need to layer up yourself.
Commit to returning equipment, supplies and tools to those storage solutions determined back in the cleaning phase. Just as in riding and training horses, doing the basics right applies equally to keeping the barn clean and horses breathing easy.