October 21, 2021
Coming In from The Cold
A 50% increase in exposure to inhalable irritants is one of several reasons the indoor environment requires extra consideration when it comes to horse health.
By Kim Miller | Equestrian Writer
"Dust" is the innocent sounding description for the main causes of asthma. There's the dust you can see, and the dust you can't see -- under 5 microns in size and invisible to the naked eye. Horses' natural respiratory defence mechanisms can usually handle larger particles. They are escorted out by tiny hair-like particles, cilia, naturally when the horse eats with its head in the natural lowered position. It's the invisible particles that pose the greatest risk because they can evade these defences and deliver tiny bits of mold, bacteria and other irritants and allergens deep into the respiratory tract and lungs.
Unfortunately, even a meticulously maintained stable has loads of microscopic irritants, much of them from forage. That's true even when the forage has high nutrient value and looks and smells fresh and clean to a knowledgeable horseman.
That's why Dr. Van Erck-Westergren includes barn visits in caring for her patients, many of whom are referred for further study when respiratory challenges persist after traditional treatments.
"I look at the horse and his environment," explains the partner in the Equine Sports Medicine Practice in Waterloo, Belgium. "We do measurements of dust levels and samples of contaminants. Some are easy to see. Have you seen someone sweep dust from the barn aisle, then stash that in the horse's stall? Or seen mold stains on barn walls or ceilings?"
Or, the pet peeve of Dr. Van Erck-Westergren and many of her colleagues: blowers in the barn aisle that stir dust up into the horse's breathing zone?
"A condition called Sick Building Syndrome exists in human medicine and it can apply to horses, too," continues the veterinarian. "They may not be coughing or having nasal discharge, but they clearly don't feel well. That can often be linked to the number of contaminants growing inside the building.
"Horses were designed to live outside, but many horses spend 23 hours a day in the barn. Living inside, they're exposed to 50 times more inhalable irritants! Even if they live outside, if they're getting hay with contaminants, it's still a problem."
"Assess and improve your horse's environment," Dr Van Erck-Westergren asserts, offering these four tips for horse owners:
1. Ensure ventilation. That means circulation and renewal of the air. If there's no renewal, moisture will accumulate and foster contaminant growth. Cobwebs indicate there isn't enough ventilation because spiders won't make them where there's any breeze.
2. Reduce dust: the fine dust that can be inhaled and lodge in the airways and deep in the lungs.
3. Look for signs of mold on walls, everywhere and especially on walls near stored hay.
4. Look at floor mats: specifically, what is growing between and underneath them. Urine accumulation can make it really dangerous and gross. It's awful for horses and people. Stables don't have to be sterile, but they do need to be clean.
Hay & Bedding
Two ubiquitous stable elements, forage and bedding, are major contributors to conditions on the Equine Asthma Spectrum. The Spectrum ranges from mild, reversible Inflammatory Airway Disease to Severe Equine Asthma that's gone so far it can only be managed, not cured.
Dr. Westergren "strongly advises" all her clients to get a Haygain High Temperature Hay Steamer because it reduces up to 99% of the fine, respirable particles and kills mold, bacteria and yeast in hay. Ample scientific studies demonstrate the benefits of killing the mold that cause irritation and inflammation in the respiratory system.
"When it comes to preventative medicine, high-temperature steaming is something that speaks for itself over time," she continues. "That's why you don't see many Haygain Hay Steamers for sale second-hand. Once horse owners adopt it, they don't go back."
As for bedding, first consider flooring that can be disinfected. ComfortStall Sealed Orthopaedic Flooring, by Haygain, is an ideal option that comes with built-in cushion so that bedding is only needed to absorb urine. Less bedding equals less respirable dust.
For what bedding is needed, wood shavings are good because they contain terpene, a natural anti-septic. Cardboard and paper shavings are cleaner options. Straw, however, can foster bacteria and fungal growth.
Although hydration is often associated with hot weather horse keeping, it's equally important in the cold season. Colic is the most common non-infectious health risk for horses and impaction colic is the form most often seen in winter.
Decreased water consumption is the most common culprit and it's the worst in cold weather because horses often drink less. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed that horses drank more water if it was heated to 66°F, but only if that warmed water was the only source. If there was cold water available, too, the horses drank mostly from that chilled source, but consumed less water overall. The ideal was a single source of warm water.
Most importantly, horses intake the majority of their water within three hours of eating. Providing adequate quantities available in that window is key. An average 1200-pound horse drinks seven to 10 gallons of water a day. That varies with activity and it's helpful to monitor intake and know your horse's baseline. The indoor lifestyle often leads to more forage consumption, which requires more water consumption to facilitate digestion.
In-the-stable mineral blocks and oral electrolytes can help prompt thirst in many horses. Haygain Steamed Hay can help because the High Temperature Steaming process increases the water content in forage by as much as three times.
Boredom Behaviours & Weight Gain
Stable confinement can make for long, dull days and nights. Eating is a nice way to pass the time, but if not regulated it can lead to weight gain. Horses' digestive systems were designed to graze - eating small quantiles spread over many hours of the day. But that is rarely convenient or feasible in the context of domesticated horses' life.
Hay nets are a popular way to slow down horse's consumption time, but they often frustrate the horse and can be quickly rendered ineffective by a food-aggressive horse. Hung on the stable wall, hay nets require the horse to hold its head and neck in an unnatural position.
Haygain considered these realities when designing The Forager Slow Feeder. The sturdy cylinder lets the horse eat with its head in the natural, lowered position, which facilitates drainage of particles from the upper respiratory tract and maintains the natural interaction between musculoskeletal structures in the back, neck and jaw.
The regulator grid sits securely atop the hay, with openings through which the horse pulls small bites of forage, simulating grazing behaviour. Held level by a ring outside the cylinder, the grid lowers as the horse slowly and contentedly consumes his meal. More chewing produces more saliva which buffers the stomach lining from naturally occurring acids and helps reduce ulcer risk. Longer mealtimes can help reduce pawing, pacing, cribbing and other boredom behaviours.
Done with forethought and care regarding the stable environment, bringing horses in from the cold can be done in ways that maintain their good health. The Haygain Way is central to doing that.
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