10 things you can do for a horse with heaves

With medication and some commonsense management, you can keep a horse with heaves comfortable. Your other horses will benefit, too.

Heaves, also known as equine asthma, is never cured. But with medication and some commonsense management you can keep your horse as comfortable and healthy as possible. Here are 10 things you can do to protect his respiratory health.

1. Wet your hay. Wetting down hay prior to feeding has long been a tried-and-true way to reduce the levels of dusts and molds a horse inhales while eating. Even good quality hay contains dust—and some mold spores—that can trigger a reaction. The amount of water need-ed depends on the horse’s level of sensitivity. If your horse has only mild heaves, just a hosing may be all that’s needed but if he is extremely sensitive it may be necessary to submerge the hay in a trough or bucket to soak it thoroughly. 

2. Steam your hay. Steaming not only adds moisture to hay but can reduce the number of microbes present. The goal is to get the core temperature of the hay up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which will eliminate or greatly reduce the mold and fungi present.

Wetting down or steaming your hay will reduce dust that can trigger a heaves episode. (Getty Images)

3. Skip the round bales. Round bales can exacerbate a horse’s respiratory problems because they tend to contain higher levels of endotoxins, dusts and molds compared to other forage sources.

4. Switch to pellets. When soaking hay isn’t enough to prevent respiratory flare-ups, consider switching to processed feed, such as cubed hay, or a complete pelleted ration with no loose forage at all.

5. Increase turnout time. Most horses with equine asthma will benefit from 24-7 turnout. The exceptions, of course, are those with summer-pasture-associated heaves, which is triggered by allergens produced by pasture plants—for those horses the best option may be to remain in the barn during the summer months.

6. Move your horse to a different stall. Choice of stall is one of the first considerations when placing a heavey horse in the barn—you want a location with maximum ventilation, well away from sources of dust, such as an attached indoor arena or a hay storage area. A corner stall next to an exterior door that can be left open year-round is a good choice for a horse with heaves.

7. Switch to a different type of bedding. Straw is among the worst bedding choices for horses with heaves because it molds readily and can retain dust. Instead con-sider chopped paper or card-board bedding. Sawdust or pellets over stall mats also work pretty well. Of course, changing the bedding in just one stall won’t fix the problem if the horses in the adjacent stalls are still stirring up their straw—ideally you’ll be able to manage your whole barn to minimize dust. Nonetheless, if you are boarding a heavey horse, it’s worthwhile to make changes in his stall to try to prevent a flare-up.

8. Clear the barn when it’s cleaning time. Remove your heavey horse, if not every horse, from the barn before sweeping the aisles or doing other chores that churn up dirt. Cleaning the stalls in the barn generates a lot of dust, and research shows that it takes at least an hour for the dust to settle down afterward. The same goes for sweeping the aisle or using a leaf blower; remove the horses before doing either.

9. Make sure your barn is well ventilated. If ammonia smells and dusty air are chronic problems in your barn, you may need to improve the ventilation throughout the structure. The solution may be as simple as setting up fans or opening windows or doors, even in winter, to allow air to be drawn through each stall. A contractor experienced with modern barns may also be able to recommend inexpensive fixes, such as installing soffit or ridge vents or cupolas, to improve airflow. All of your horses will benefit from the cleaner air.

1O. Add an omega-3 fatty acid supplement. In human medicine, omega-3 fatty acids are used to help manage a variety of inflammatory conditions, and research suggests that horses with heaves may benefit from them as well. 

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