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When a horse can't whinny

Surgery to remedy roaring,  the common name for paralysis of the larynx  (laryngeal hemiplegia) can leave a horse unable to whinny.

Question: I recently purchased a 7-year-old gelding who can’t whinny. He tries to call to other horses, but only makes a strange, wheezy noise. (If he tries really hard, it sounds a little bit like a donkey braying.) Is this an indication of some problem with his throat or respiratory system? Should I have my veterinarian come check him? I had a pre-purchase exam done, but this never came up and I didn’t realize there was a problem until we got him home.

Answer: When a horse can’t whinny or sounds as you describe, it typically means that his vocal cords have been removed. This surgery is done in horses whose airflow is restricted when they exercise due to paralysis of the larynx (voice box). This is clinically known as “laryngeal hemiplegia” and affected horses are called “roarers” because of the loud breathing noise they make while galloping can sound like the roar of a lion.

Two main types of surgery are performed to open the airways: one involves the removal of the vocal cords, and the other is a “tieback” procedure in which larynx is altered to remain open that usually also includes removing vocal cords. These surgeries help horses breathe better when they exercise but unfortunately, these procedures permanently alter the horse’s voice. If you are still curious, you can have a veterinarian examine your horse’s upper airways using an endoscope to look for evidence of these procedures.

Laurent Couetil , DVM, PhD,

Diplomate ACVIM-LAIM

Purdue University

West Lafayette, India

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