Oxygen is indispensable for the (equine) body; it is essential for providing the cells of the body with energy. Without oxygen, powerful muscles count for nothing. Never underestimate the power of oxygen!
While in humans, the heart is the greatest bottleneck, horses have a different restriction: their respiratory system’s physical limitations mean that during strenuous exercise, they do not get enough oxygen.
Enormous lung capacity
A horse’s lung capacity is around 50 litres, with a surface area the size of 10 tennis courts. For comparison, the area of human lungs is around a third of the size of a tennis court. Horses can breathe in some 1800 litres of air per minute. However, the horse’s respiratory system has two significant limitations that restrict oxygen intake. This can cause hypoxaemia (oxygen deprivation) during intense exercise. The first of these limitations is the fact that horses can only breath through their nose.
Furthermore, as they have a narrow larynx, they encounter relatively high resistance when breathing in. A horse’s long neck also means the air must travel a considerable distance. This makes it more difficult for them to inhale and exhale quickly.
That is why your horse breathes faster than normal during training. This is because muscle cells need oxygen at a higher rate when burning energy. Your horse gets its energy for exercise primarily from carbohydrates and fats, but to burn them fully, oxygen is also required. Your horse provides that oxygen by simply taking a breath. When the training intensity increases, your horse breathes faster to provide more oxygen. As long as this triangle remains in balance, aerobic energy production takes place and no lactic acid is produced. If there is a shortage of oxygen, energy production becomes anaerobic and acid builds up in the muscles, causing muscle pain.
It is not unusual for sports horses to be unable to perform at their best. We do not always think to check their lungs. A horse does not need to be showing clear symptoms, such as coughing, a runny nose or heavy breathing, but may have problems nonetheless. Yet scientific research shows that as many as 88% of sport horses exhibiting poor performance are suffering from inflamed airways1.
Stables and boxes; sources of respiratory infection
Respiratory disorders such as pulmonary haemorrhage and asthma are common equine afflictions. The reason? Horses are made to live outside. When we house them in a stable or box, we expose them to vast amounts of airborne particles. It has been scientifically proven that stabled horses are at higher risk of inflammation and other respiratory diseases. Those particles contain organisms that thrive in warm, damp environments. Examples include fungi, bacteria and mites.
Another culprit; poor ventilation
Poorly ventilated stables can also impact air quality, with higher levels of ammonia, pathogens and other substances. All these microorganisms constantly assault your horse’s immune system, leading to inflammation, infection and allergies. Precisely because of your horse’s inefficient breathing, even a small respiratory tract infection can be enough to affect its performance and rapid recovery after hard work.
Solution 1: Ventilation and more ventilation
The first rule for keeping your horse’s respiratory system healthy is proper stable ventilation. That means at least four times an hour. This helps remove the heat and moisture produced by your horse. Is your stable full of cobwebs or is it smelling musty? Have a close look at the ventilation. Make sure wall and ceiling vents provide fresh outside air, even in winter. Keeping doors and windows closed encourages condensation and allows mould to flourish.
Solution 2: Healthy hay and bedding
The second rule is to ensure that hay and bedding are uncontaminated. Depending on the weather conditions during harvest and how they are dried and stored, these can harbour harmful microbes. Consider having your roughage analysed and make sure it is stored in a dry place. This helps to counter the growth of these pathogens. Steaming your hay is the best way to eliminate them. How about soaking your hay? Not a good idea, as this promotes the growth of bacteria and fungi. Consider using wood shavings as stable bedding instead. These are more hygienic and can help keep your horse’s airways healthy.
Respiratory infection? Be careful with corticosteroids
Has your horse contracted a respiratory disease despite all this? Ask your veterinarian about suitable medical treatment and give your horse ample time to recover. Watch out when using corticosteroids. These potent anti-inflammatories can keep inflammation in check. However, long-term use will weaken your horse’s immune system and increases the risk of laminitis. Corticosteroids are not standard medication for sport horses. They are considered doping if used in-competition, for example.
Feeding advice from our nutritionists: 3 supplements for a healthy respiratory system
The products in our Respiratory System & Airways range of supplements contain herbs and extracts of proven scientific effectiveness. Our three supplements each function differently. We recommend them in specific circumstances:
Cavalor Bronchix Pulmo: to support the lungs and increase elasticity during training
Cavalor Bronchix Pure: for intensive breathing support
Cavalor Bronchix Liquid: for easy breathing
Cavalor Bronchix Pulmo: scientifically proven effect
“A clinical trial under my supervision demonstrated that the use of Cavalor Bronchix Pulmo as a supplement shows great promise in active racehorses.”Dr Emmanuelle van Erck-Westergren
Doctor of veterinary medicine, PhD, ECEIM diplomate, specialist in equine internal medicine
1 Fungi in respiratory samples of horses with inflammatory airway disease J. Dauvillier, F. ter Woort, E. van Erck‐Westergren Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Volume 33, Issue 2