Are you making your horse cough?

By making some simple management changes, you can eliminate common threats to your horse's respiratory health.

Could you be making your horse cough? It’s certainly possible. Many common barn management practices are hazardous to your horse’s respiratory health according to Melissa Millerick-May, PhD, an assistant professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan State University.

Several common barn management practices can cause sensitive horses to cough.

Previously, May was an industrial hygienist for U.S. automobile manufacturers. “My job was to measure and monitor the air quality in automotive plants and make sure it was safe,” she says. When a horse with heaves came into her care, Mays, a life-long rider, decided to use her professional experience to investigate the stable environment. “I began looking for air quality measurements in barns and found no one had done them. I called Dr. [Ed] Robinson at Michigan State, who said I should do them. Next thing I knew I’m working on my PhD.”

For her study, which is still in progress, May has applied the same technology she used in the auto industry. “We used real-time dust monitors that pull in outside air,” she explains. “The air passes in front of lase, which can help you determine the concentration of dust particulate sizes.”

The results of her analysis has given Mays a new way of looking at barn chores. “We’ve found lots of everyday practices produce very elevated levels of particulates. Healthy horses may manage, but horses with heaves, like my mare, simply can’t.” Here are some of the worst dust producers:

Feeding dry hay. “I was surprised to find that even the cleanest looking hay had an incredible amount of dust in it,” says May. “And hay that looked ‘sort of’ dusty maxed out our monitors.” Fortunately, she adds, hay dust is easy to mitigate. “A little water sprinkled on the hay goes a long, long way to minimizing the dust the horse inhales. It’s important to water the hay before the horse has any access to it. That first bit, where they pull the flake apart raises the most dust. If you toss hay to the horse, then leave the stall to go get the hose, it’s too late.”

Throwing hay into occupied stalls from above. “Eating hay is problematic enough, but when you toss it down from a hay loft into the stall it just rains dust.”

Feeding hay from hay racks. “This is a double-whammy,” she says. “The horses tend to bury their noses in the rack rather than pull a bite free and turn their heads. So their noses stay in the dust. Also, horses eating from racks never lower their heads, so there is no opportunity for particulates to drain out of the airway.”

Click here to learn what the best beddings for horses with heaves are.

Feeding the last pellets in a bag. “For the most part, pelleted feeds are dust-free,” says May. “But when you get scoop from the very bottom of the grain bin, you pick up ton of dust from pulverized pellets. Then, you toss them into a feeder and your horse sticks his nose right there. It’s a very dusty situation.”

Raking dirt aisles. “A raked dirt aisle looks great, but the process raises an unacceptable level of dust,” says Mays. Sweeping a concrete aisle has a similar effect. A sprinkling of water can help cut the dust, but May says raking and sweeping are best done with the horses turned out.

By making simple management changes to reduce dust, May has kept her horse’s heaves under control for the past 16 years. “She gets ridden five or six days a week and she shows,” says Mays. “The heaves just hasn’t been a problem because of how she’s kept.” Mays boards her horse at a co-op barn where many owners care for various horses, but her dust-control measures have been adopted by everyone. “It’s not just about helping horses with noticeable heaves, these things protect the respiratory health of every single horse.”

This article originally appeared in EQUUS #365.

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