When change is good

Although the lexicon of horsemanship is often slow to change, it's important that we update our management traditions based on scientific progress.

We may not like to admit it, but horse people are pretty averse to change. We love traditions and doing certain things just because “that’s how they are done.” Just look at the clothes we show in. Any sensible group of people would have abandoned white breeches decades ago. And why do we mount from the left? Because, apparently, knights used to.

The resistance becomes particularly apparent to me every time the veterinary community changes the terminology used to refer to a disease. It happened about 15 years ago when leading researchers decided that Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) would replace the term Cushing’s Disease. The new name was a mouthful, but it more accurately describes the metabolic condition of older horses. The hope was to phase out Cushing’s from usage entirely.

When the EQUUS editors learned of the change we realized it would cause confusion if just stopped using “Cushing’s” in our pages. So we began using the two terms together, explaining they were same condition. We hoped PPID would eventually become the norm. It took a good long while but eventually that happened, sort of. People accepted PPID, but still like the familiar term. In our pages we will refer to “PPID, also known as Cushing’s,” as a compromise. This gives priority to the correct term, but acknowledges the name many still use. Can we buck tradition again when it comes to a different disease? We’re in the process of finding out.

You may have noticed the term “equine asthma” (EA) used on our pages over the past three years or so. This is the new preferred term for recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), also known as heaves, and another condition of younger horses triggered by exercise called inflammatory airway disease (IAD). Going back even further, this same condition used to be called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you’re a horsemen of certain age, you may still call it that, but that name was abandoned entirely by the veterinary community more than a decade ago because in humans, COPD is mainly a consequence of cigarette smoking, clearly not the issue with horses.

Confused? Don’t be. These are all essentially the same clinical condition—inflammation of the small airways of the lungs in response to inhaled allergens like particles from dry hay or a dusty arena. These horses have exercise intolerance and, in extreme cases, trouble breathing while just standing still. Horses can be asymptomatic when managed carefully, but have “flare-ups” when kept in a triggering environment for even a few hours. Due to its similarity with human asthma, veterinary researchers hoped that adopting the term would help owners better understand the condition and appreciate that it’s a chronic problem to be managed for the entirety of a horse’s life.

I hope they are right. Because what’s more important that changing the lexicon of horsemanship is updating our management traditions. I recently wrote a story about research that found a direct statistical correlation between an asthmatic horse’s improvement and the owner’s efforts. You can read it here.

Simply put, the researchers found that when owners ignored veterinary guidelines—which advise keeping the horse outside and feeding pelleted forage, for instance—the horses remained symptomatic. Of course, it’s not always logistically possible to implement recommended changes, but I’ve been around barns long enough to know sometimes people keep horses indoors eating traditional dry hay because “that’s how it’s always been done.”

So, to sum up: COPD became RAO and IAD, which have collectively become EA. And “heaves” is still acceptable for general conversations. It’s time to change the traditional language. Also, turn out heavey horses and soak their hay, because it’s long past time to change traditional management for these horses and I know we can do it.




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