Getting a Second Wind: Helping Equine Athletes Breathe

Getting a Second Wind: Helping Equine Athletes Breathe

Depending on how a horse's nose is built, nasal strips can help open the airway during exercise.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Are breathing issues slowing your horse down? Here are some surgical and management options that might help

It matters not how sound of foot and mind your barrel racer, show jumper, or trail horse is. If oxygen can’t pass through his nostrils and flow down his airways unimpeded, he’s not going to be able to turn those barrels, clear those fences, or handle a long-distance ride. 

While some breathing problems are temporary and can be corrected easily with the proper medication regimen, others might cause lifelong breathing difficulties and compromise the horse’s athleticism to the point that he can no longer perform. 

The good news is that management techniques and/or surgery can mitigate some of these problems, even at the highest competitive levels. For example, a Thoroughbred racehorse named Bolo, that ran in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, underwent surgery for a breathing problem last year. After seven months of recovery, he returned to win the $200,000 Arcadia Stakes at Santa Anita, in Arcadia, California, in February 2017.

Kathleen Anderson, DVM, is a partner at Equine Veterinary Care at the Fair Hill Training Center, in Elkton, Maryland. She says that in the crucial first step of diagnosing a respiratory issue, veterinarians must determine if the breathing problem is mechanical, inflammatory, or both.

Mechanical problems can include laryngeal hemiplegia (often called roaring, or recurrent laryngeal neuropathy), a displaced soft palate, an entrapped ep-iglottis, or arytenoid chondritis. All these conditions can make breathing more difficult and might impede oxygen exchange.

A horse with laryngeal hemiplegia suffers from paralysis of one of the muscles in the larynx. The epiglottis, which is a cartilage at the root of the tongue, can become entrapped when a membrane that usually underlies the epiglottis flips up over it. Arytenoid chondritis is a progressive inflammation affecting the laryngeal cartilage at the opening of the trachea.

Anderson explains that inflammatory conditions can be acute and short-lived, such as with viral or bacterial infections, or chronic, such as with equine asthma (formerly known as COPD, heaves, or recurrent airway obstruction).

The first indications of a problem might include noise coming from the respiratory tract when the horse exercises and/or decreased performance. Have your veterinarian examine your horse early to differentiate an inflammatory disease from a mechanical obstruction and to begin treatment before inflammation becomes chronic. Then you and your veterinarian can map out the best way to solve or manage the problem.

An endoscopic examination is a key step in the diagnostic process. An endoscope tube inserted into the horse’s airway transmits images to a screen via fiber-optics. Typically, veterinarians perform the examination while the horse is standing, sometimes immediately after exercise and sometimes after the horse has been at rest.

Dynamic video endoscopy is a newer diagnostic tool, says Anderson. This technology allows the veterinarian to observe a horse’s respiratory tract during exercise. The information is transmitted wirelessly to a computer and can be reviewed later in more detail. Mechanical problems in the throat and larynx and inflammatory conditions lower in the respiratory tract can both be diagnosed with endoscopy.

Gary Priest, DVM, of Harthill and Priest Equine Surgery, in Versailles, Kentucky, has been at the forefront of video endoscopy diagnosis. “Dynamic endoscopy has allowed the equine veterinarian to understand the exact cause of the airway impairment,” he says, “and to better advise the owners and trainers as to what treatment options are available and are most effective.”

This article continues in the July 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Learn more about medical and surgical options to address respiratory issues in horses. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue to continue reading.

About the Author

Tracy Gantz

Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.

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