by Fran Jurga | 23 November 2009 | The Jurga Report at Equisearch.com
The stable wears out a horse more than the road does.
Don't breathe a word of this to anyone. In fact, if you are out in the barn right now, don't breathe, period.
You may have a different attitude toward your horse's health and your own after reading about a study conducted at the Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and just published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology.
The study found that barn workers on horse farms in New England suffer a disproportionately high incidence of respiratory problems. In fact, 50 percent of individuals working in barns complained of coughing, wheezing, or other ailments in the last year, compared to just 15 percent in the control group.
There's dust in the air, there's fungus in the air, and while barn workers may be bothered, what about the horses who are trapped in their stalls? Bedding appears to be the biggest culprit in stable air problems, but hay is the source of many particulates in the air.
"It has long been known that lower respiratory illness is common in horses, and this is typically attributed to the amount of dust in barns," said Melissa R. Mazan, DVM, associate professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School and the study's lead author. "Our hope was to see whether this poor air quality affects horse owners, and it appears that it might."
The authors describe this as a preliminary study, so no recommendations were given to improve air quality in barns. One obvious step could be to store hay in a separate building, and to keep horses outside as much as possible, where they can be fed hay in the open air.
Barn hygiene and air quality improvement can be attempted with pressure washing, diligent cleaning and paying attention to ventilation, particularly in older barns. Fans used to cool horses kept in stalls during the summer months are a relatively recent addition to New England barns, as is the custom of keeping horses indoors for the majority of the day and night. Fans, of course, do a great job of spreading dust and air particles around the barn.
Horse owners, grooms, trainers, and barn workers who complain of frequent colds, asthma or breathing problems can keep a simple record on a calendar and compare the severity of symptoms with their exposure to different conditions and locations.
Plenty of us carry the particulate and dust around with us all day by working in barns with long hair uncovered and wearing clothes like our beloved fleece jackets that trap dust particles so they can hitch-hike into our houses and go to work with us. Maybe that's why the stable workers in Europe wear those long duster coats over their clothes: they can take them off and leave them at the stable. And because they are made of smooth fabric, there's less cling.
Has anyone developed a breathing mask for horses with respiratory sensitivity yet? That would be interesting to see. I know there are ventilation and medication masks, but I'm thinking about a small filter that attaches to the halter, similar to those little muzzle nets for head-shakers. Imagine what researchers would find if they analyzed those.
This study, which is described in an article from Tufts, was originally presented this summer at the ACVIM Forum in Montreal.
A previous study conducted in Sweden, "Influence of horse stable environment on human airways"was published earlier this year and found similar results in that country. It is available in full text on the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicologyweb site.
To learn more about how to improve ventilation in your barn, read the chapter on barn ventilation from the excellent reference book Horse Stable and Riding Arena Designby Eileen Wheeler (Wiley Blackwell 2006) via Google Books.