Spotlight On The Performance Horse

The Kentucky Horse Council sponsored a day long seminar “Spotlight On the Performance Horse.” Included in this seminar were topics covering many areas as they relate to performance horses. Topics ranged from controlling air quality to EPM, from the importance of the thyroid gland and health care strategies for performance horses to keeping joints healthy. Also included were two round table sessions, one geared to the business side of owning performance horses. It covered such facets as liability, insurance, contracts, and management strategies for running a professional horse operation. The other discussion session focused on equine sports therapy and the diagnostic tools and non-traditional therapies available in the equine industry.

Bob Coleman, PhD, opened the morning session with his presentation “Breathing Better: Controlling Air Quality In Horse Areas.” While most of us take for granted the air we breathe, those with asthma and other respiratory diseases do not. We also take for granted the air our horses breathe; however, many of our management practices are counterproductive to provide the horse with the best quality of air. As a result, many horses develop respiratory ailments that can range from mild to severe. There is much we can do to insure that our horses receive the optimum advantages for breathing good quality air. If we want our equines to be able to perform at their highest level, we must eliminate those elements of their environment which inhibit their ability to move large volumes of air while engaged in active work.

There are factors that we can control that can help to eliminate many causes of respiratory problems, especially the ammonia, dusts, and molds that can lead to such diseases as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD or heaves) and lower respiratory tract infection.

The first factor is the environment. Horses, by nature's design, are meant to spend their life outdoors where there is more air circulation and less chance for contamination with foreign particles. Yet, in our efforts to provide more comfort for the animal (perhaps the human animal lies foremost in our desires), we bring our horses in to stable them from the elements and thereby expose them to far worse conditions than a brisk, northerly wind or other harsh climatic events.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of eliminating prospective problems lies in the forage feed we provide. It must be free of dust and mold. Only if there are no dust and mold in the hay will the feed by acceptable. A little dust and mold are never okay. Should it be impossible to find hay that is free of dust and mold, there are other management practices that can be incorporated. One is the use of alternative forages such as hay cubes. Not only are they a good source of forage, but they are also relatively free of dust and mold. Also usable is pelleted forage, but it should be used as a supplement to hay cubes, not as a substitute. Complete pelleted feeds provide the correct nutrients. However, using them to replace forage can lead the horse to develop other habits. A third possibility is haylage, a high moisture content feed. Dust and mold are eliminated, but there can be a problem with the digestive process. It is imperative that there is no spoilage associated with the haylage or the mold created in the spoilage might cause serious digestive problems. Watering the hay provides a way to reduce the amount of dust. Soaking it long enough to get it wet all the way through is long enough; if the hay is soaked too long, the nutrients will leach out. Too, any leftover hay will mold, so it must be removed immediately.

Bedding is another source of dust and mold, so it is imperative to keep bedding as free from those contaminants as possible. Once again a change in management practices can help accomplish that goal. If straw is the bedding of choice, then barley straw and wheat straw are not as high in dust and molds as other forms of straw. Just as there are alternatives to forage, there are alternatives to bedding. Clean wood shavings, shredded paper, and peat moss might also be sources of bedding. Whatever the medium, the bedding should be changed regularly and not allowed to mold and create a potential problem for the horse. This practice is part of stall care.

Good stall care requires regular cleaning of the stall, the more frequent the better. The ammonia buildup in a stall is not in itself a cause of respiratory disease. It does, however, lead to problems within the respiratory system which can allow respiratory diseases to occur. If we can recognize the smell of ammonia within a stall (50parts/million of ammonia in the air), it's a level that is too high. Daily cleaning of the stall will reduce the risk. Products to control the amount of ammonia getting into the horse's environment are on the market as well.

Your horse's stall should be cleaned with him turned out. If he is kept in the stall while the old bedding is removed and replaced, he is exposed to a much higher level of ammonia (as the soiled bedding is being cleaned out) and dust particles (as the fresh bedding is being put down and the dust particles are flying, waiting to settle).

Good ventilation in the barn is a necessity. The air quality needs to be changed four to six times per hour. This rate allows the horses to have access to fresh air which will help eliminate the dust and mold that can accumulate inside a humid enclosed area.

Whatever your horse's discipline, proper management skills can help your horse achieve his potential by allowing him to utilize his breathing ability in an optimal fashion.

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