Breath Is Life: Supporting the Equine Respiratory Tract
Because of the horrendous fires in California, and the subsequent toxic air, I think it’s timely and very important to look at the equine respiratory system and how to support it.
Respiratory-related health conditions are the second-leading cause of poor performance in sport horses. These health conditions include:
- respiratory tract infections
- dorsal displacement of the soft palate
- laryngeal hemiplegia (roaring)
- exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage
- inflammatory airway disease
- recurrent airway obstruction (COPD, heaves)
How the respiratory system works
The respiratory tract begins at the nostrils, and includes the nasal passages, guttural pouches, soft palate, larynx, trachea, thorax and lungs.
Air enters the body through the nostrils, into the nasal passages and larynx, into the trachea and then into the alveoli of the lungs. Oxygen has to cross the alveoli into the pulmonary capillaries in the lungs. Once in the bloodstream, oxygen is bound to hemoglobin and pumped to the muscles to provide energy. As oxygen moves into the cells, it feeds the mitochondria, which thrive on oxygen. The mitochondria produce the energy currency of the cell: ATP.
The respiratory system not only takes in oxygen, but gets rid of carbon dioxide: a waste product within the mitochondria of the muscles during exercise. The waste carbon dioxide is then breathed out with each exhalation of the horse.
Airflow rates vary
Comparing various flow rates (reported in liters per second) shows that the airflow velocity in exercising horses ranges from 64 to 79, while the average hair dryer is measured at 40, and the typical airflow velocity of an exercising human is only 4. (from The Horse, Oct. 23, 2017)
The amount of air moved in and out of the lungs increases in direct proportion to the horse’s speed. At the canter and gallop, one breath equals one stride.
When thinking of the great Secretariat and his incredible Triple Crown achievement, consider one major physical advantage he had: a large heart and lungs, which provided a super-high capacity to use oxygen.
Reducing risks of respiratory disease
Air quality is a major factor in many respiratory diseases and respiratory health issues. Even horses living out 24/7 are at risk if exposed to environmental pollutants such as car exhaust, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone.
Allergens such as molds, pollens, and yeasts can contribute to respiratory challenges. Poor ventilation in barns in the winter can increase horses’ exposure to molds and dust.
And don’t forget ammonia: a caustic gas that begins with excess dietary protein, and is expelled through urine in the form of urea. Ammonia can take its toll on athletic abilities and quality of life.
Although straw has fallen out of use in the US, many barns in the UK are returning to its use, as straw can contain less fungi and bacterial toxins than low-quality shavings. Straw in the US can be dusty, though I have found that buying straw from a local farmer yields better quality than straw from the feed store. However, straw is less absorbent than shavings.
In some states, hemp bedding is becoming popular because it is very absorbent, lower in dust, and helps reduce ammonia odor better than sawdust.
Wood pellets and peat moss are becoming more common at some race track barns because of the low dust.
In general, many researchers point out that the more time horses spend outside the better.
Supporting the respiratory tract
Vitamins A and C are important antioxidants for respiratory health. Vitamin C is found in the fluid lining of the airways, and Vitamin E in the lung tissue. Although horses make their own vitamin C, stress, air quality, and allergens can lead to additional supplementation requirements. I use whole oranges with the peel and put them in a food processor. The whole orange includes rutin and other important bioflavonoids (vitamin P).
There is a ton of debate about supplementing vitamin C in a powder or as a feed additive. Some research points to low bioavailability of supplemented vitamin C (ascorbic acid). That’s why I chose the food route. Other food choices are wheat grass, spirulina, sprouted grains, rose hips, kale, kiwis, papayas, and strawberries. Hay is virtually devoid of vitamin C.
One of the best plant sources of vitamin C is amalaki (Indian gooseberry). The extract, which we use at BioStar, provides 20 times more vitamin C than an orange. You can find it in our Receptor EQ and Quantum EQ formulas.
Horses get vitamin E from fresh grass, but that requires grazing of 6-8 hours per day. Vitamin E content of hay depends on harvesting, curing, and storage. Low vitamin E content of hay is common these days. There are many vitamin E supplement choices. For high therapeutic levels, I recommend Elevate by Kentucky Performance Products or Nano-E from Kentucky Equine Research.
For maintenance, I recommend camelina oil.
The respiratory tract is the home of various microorganisms, including L. rhamnosus. BioStar’s BioFlora EQ provides this specific microorganism for respiratory support.
If your horse is exposed to unhealthy air from forest fires, stall ammonia, car exhaust, sulfur dioxides (from fossil fuels burned by power plants and other industrial facilities, volcanoes, locomotives, extraction of metal from ore), pesticides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides carried on wind, or lives with poor air quality due to pollution or dust, you will want to add additional nutritional support. Horses traveling long distances may also benefit from additional respiratory support foods and plants.
A strong immune system is important for supporting the respiratory tract. Bovine colostrum supports the immune system by regulating the thymus, master gland of the immune system. Colostrum also provides 70 different growth factors for cellular repair.
Specific herbs such as mullein, Echinacea, yarrow, and Irish moss assist the body in combating toxins and pollutants. I recommend the Silver Lining Herbs formula called 22 Respiratory Support.
I know several horse owners who use essential oils to support their horses when there are respiratory challenges. Common oils used include eucalyptus, frankincense, and fennel. You can put a few drops in your hand and cup it under the horse’s nose so that he breathes in the aroma. You can also use a diffuser plugged into an electrical outlet in the barn aisle, or outside your horse’s stall.
Clays can be helpful for horses exposed to pollution, toxic air, pesticides and herbicides.
The smectite and bentonite clays are helpful in binding and absorbing toxins in the body. These clays are negatively charged, which causes them to attract any substance with a positive ionic charge such as bacteria, toxins, and heavy metals.
Horses with COPD or laryngeal hemiplegia (roarers) won’t benefit from clay therapy unless they are additionally exposed to air pollutants.
BioStar’s Rebound EQ provides smectite clay and also provides our BioFlora formula and colostrum.
Hay steamers can be hugely beneficial for horses with COPD, as well as horses breathing air from forest fires or industrial fires. The Haygain Hay Steamer is said to eliminate 99% of mold, fungi, yeast, and bacteria.
Simple ways to reduce inflammation of the respiratory tract
As long as your horse is not living near a forest fire zone, or in an area experiencing wind drift of fire smoke or agricultural chemicals, keeping horses outside as much as possible can help reduce inflammation of the airways.
Barns with good ventilation include open front stalls and large outside windows in each stall. Ceiling fans are also beneficial, particularly in warm climates.
Feed hay on the ground as much as possible. This can be challenging for metabolic horses that need slow-feeding hay nets. It is advisable to put at least 1 flake of hay on the ground twice a day for metabolic horses because ground-feeding helps promote drainage from the horse’s airway. Soaking the hay will reduce some of the sugars as well as dust and other particles.
Avoid feeding round bales to horses with COPD.
Many barns use leaf blowers to clear the aisles. This stirs up dirt and dust and blows it up to the level of the horse’s nose. If you use a leaf blower, use it when the horses are turned out.
Arena dust can be an issue for horses as well as riders. If your horse is creating a dust cloud in the arena, know that he is breathing in that dust.
“For breath is life, so if you breathe well you will live long on earth.”
– Sanskrit proverb