The cold season can be especially hard on horses with heaves, a progressive narrowing of the small airways that is technically known equine asthma. During the winter horses are more likely to be kept indoors, where air quality can be poor, for more hours per day. Episodes of heaves are triggered by tiny dust particles arising from footing, bedding, hay and the environment. Ironically, many owners may think they are doing something positive for older horses by keeping them in warm barns, but the opposite is usually true: Dusty indoor air can irritate a horse’s respiratory system, leaving him less comfortable and more compromised than if he were left out in the cold. When blanketed appropriately and given shelter, older horses can live outside 24/7, even in very cold weather.
• If you know your horse has heaves, arrange to keep him outdoors as much as possible during the winter. This means thinking about all the ways to keep him warm without shutting him up in the barn: blanketing, feeding and shelter.
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• Horses with heaves do best with hay that has been soaked to reduce dust. This is more difficult in the winter, but it’s critical to still do so. Keep in mind that hay doesn’t have to be soaked for long to control dust---a thorough wetting with a hose is fine. Also, it’s fine to feed frozen hay to horses, so don’t worry about that. Steaming hay in commercially available devices will reduce dust without freezing and without removing any precious nutrients.
• Consider putting mats and bedding into a run-in shed to make it more comfortable for your horse to lie down while still enjoying plenty of fresh air.
• If, despite your best efforts, your older horse has a heaves flare-up in the middle of winter, the first thing to do is remove him from the dusty environment. This may mean moving him from the barn to a paddock outside, even if it’s very cold. Make sure his hay is also dust-free. Then call your veterinarian. Medications, including steroids, can help a horse through an acute episode of heaves, but the only way to sustain improvements is to make lasting management changes.
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