Cold weather sends many horses indoors, but warm and cozy has health risks.
Weird as our weather is these days, winter will eventually find us. Its arrival will require most of our horses to spend much of their days indoors and indoor living poses unique equine health risks.
To start with, exposure to inhalable irritants increases by 50 percent compared to living outdoors. Respirable irritants are the main cause of conditions on the Equine Asthma Spectrum that affect over 80 percent of active sport horses.
Sometimes the symptoms can be as subtle as a sporadic cough and sometimes there are no obvious symptoms.
Although dehydration is often considered a hot weather concern, it should be in winter, too, along with related impaction colic.
The good news is that our horses' environment is something horse owners can control or, at least, significantly improve by reducing these risk factors. We spoke with top sport horse veterinarian Emmanuelle Van Erck-Westergren, DVM, PhD, ECEIM of Equine Sport Medicine Practice in Waterloo, Belgium, for tips on healthy indoor horsekeeping.
"Dust" is the innocent sounding description for the main causes of equine asthma. There's the dust you can see, and the dust you can't see -- under 5 microns in size and invisible to the naked eye. Horses' natural respiratory defense mechanisms can usually handle larger particles. They are escorted out by tiny hair-like particles, cilia, naturally when the horse eats with its head in a lowered position.
It's the invisible particles that are problematic. They can evade these defenses and deliver tiny bits of mold, bacteria and other irritants and allergens deep into the respiratory tract and lungs, triggering inflammation and increased mucus production. This can constrict airway passages and impede the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream that carries it to all points in the body.
Unfortunately, even a meticulously maintained stable has loads of microscopic irritants, much of them from forage. That's true even when the forage has high nutrient value and looks and smells fresh and clean to a knowledgeable horseman.
That's why Dr. Van Erck-Westergren includes barn visits in caring for her patients, many of whom are referred for further study when respiratory challenges persist after traditional treatments.
"I look at the horse and his environment," she explains. "We do measurements of dust levels and samples of contaminants. Some are easy to see. Have you seen someone sweep dust from the barn aisle, then stash that in the horse's stall? Or seen mold stains on barn walls or ceilings?"
Or, the pet peeve of Dr. Van Erck-Westergren and many of her colleagues: blowers in the barn aisle that stir dust up into the horse's breathing zone?
"A condition called Sick Building Syndrome exists in human medicine and it can apply to horses, too," continues the veterinarian. "They may not be coughing or having nasal discharge, but they clearly don't feel well. That can often be linked to the amount of contaminants growing inside the building.
"Horses were designed to live outside, but many horses spend 23 hours a day in the barn. Living inside, they're exposed to 50 times more inhalable irritants! Even if they live outside, if they're getting hay with contaminants, it's still a problem."
"Assess and improve your horse's environment," Dr Van Erck-Westergren asserts, offering these four tips for horse owners -
• Ensure ventilation. That means circulation and renewal of the air. If there's no renewal, moisture will accumulate and foster contaminant growth. Cobwebs indicate there isn't enough ventilation because spiders won't make them where there's any breeze.
• Reduce dust: the fine dust that can be inhaled and lodge in the airways and deep in the lungs.
• Look for signs of mold on walls, everywhere and especially on walls near stored hay.
• Look at floor mats -- specifically, what is growing between and underneath them. Urine accumulation can make it really dangerous and gross. It's awful for horses and people. Stables don't have to be sterile, but they do need to be clean.”
Hay & Bedding
Forage and bedding are major contributors to conditions on the Equine Asthma Spectrum. The Spectrum ranges from mild, reversible Inflammatory Airway Disease to Severe Equine Asthma that's gone so far it can only be managed, not cured.
Dr. Westergren "strongly advises" all her clients to get a Haygain High Temperature Hay Steamer because it reduces up to 99% of the fine, respirable particles and kills mold, bacteria and yeast in hay. Ample scientific studies demonstrate the benefits of killing the mold that cause irritation and inflammation in the respiratory system.
"When it comes to preventative medicine, high-temperature steaming is something that speaks for itself over time," she continues. "That's why you don't see many Haygains for sale second-hand. Once horse owners adopt it, they don't go back."
As for bedding, first consider flooring that can be disinfected. ComfortStall Sealed Orthopedic Flooring, by Haygain, is an ideal option that comes with built-in cushion so that bedding is only needed to absorb urine.
Less bedding equals less respirable dust.
For what bedding is needed, wood shavings are good because they contain terpene, a natural anti-septic. Cardboard and paper shavings are cleaner options. Straw, however, can foster bacteria and fungal growth.
Hydration is often associated with hot-weather horsekeeping, but it's equally important in the cold season. Colic is the most common non-infectious health risk for horses and impaction colic is the form most often seen in winter.
Decreased water consumption is the most common culprit and it's the worst in cold weather because horses often drink less. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed that horses drank more water if it was heated to 66°F, but only if that warmed water was the only source. If there was cold water available, too, the horses drank mostly from that chilled source, but consumed less water overall. The ideal was a single source of warm water.
Most importantly, horses intake the majority of their water within three hours of eating. Providing adequate quantities of water during that window of time is key.
An average 1,200-pound horse drinks seven to 10 gallons of water a day. That varies with activity and it's helpful to monitor intake and know your horse's baseline.
Indoor living often means more forage consumption, which requires more water consumption to facilitate digestion.
In-the-stable mineral blocks and oral electrolytes can help prompt thirst in many horses. Haygain can help there, too, because it increases the moisture content in hay by up to 3X.
Here’s to healthy, happy winter for all our horses!