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Breathing Easy For Athletic Performance

Respiratory problems come from a wide variety of causes, such as seasonal allergies, long-term confinement with injury rehab or related to weather, particles in the air from debris burning or pollution, contaminated or dusty feed, respiratory specific viruses, bacteria, and internal parasites, immune system disorders, and diseases such as inflammatory airway disease (IAD), asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) – also known as heaves.  Many of these are correlated with training and/or competition season either directly or indirectly, as spring allergies often coincide with the start of the show year, the risk of exposure to diseases is more likely when horses gather at a competition, injuries with long-term treatments and resulting long-term confinement are more likely in performance horses, stress levels are general higher with advancing level of competition and thus the immune system is more taxed, and the sheer rigors of exercise are associated specifically with intense respiratory demands and risk of respiratory tissue injury. 

Signs of Problems
Further complicating things, respiratory issues can present in a number of ways - from seemingly minor to life threatening - including nasal discharge of mucus or blood, repeated or excessive snorting, cough of any kind, blowing (forcing air out through the nose quickly), wheezing, lack of air movement despite active attempt to inhale, chronically flared nostrils, increased respiratory rate (especially frequent but shallow breathing), and changes in respiratory muscle tone (Loving, 2016).  Probably the least appreciated is that a cough of any kind or frequency is considered abnormal in horses and is always considered an indicator of respiratory issues – as in a cough is considered a sign of disease and not a condition of its own (Brazil et al., 2020). 

Because coughing isn’t always appreciated as a signal of respiratory distress, the frequency of horses with respiratory disorders is not well known, as many horses will cough regularly but owners and riders don’t realize this is a sign of a problem that likely should be addressed in some way.  In fact, horses with IAD often only present the symptom of coughing at the onset of exercise (Loving, 2016).  These horses could benefit from management changes, respiratory supplements, and/or veterinary treatment that could ease discomfort, facilitate breathing, and improve athleticism, but often they go untreated. 

How Management Can Help Your Horse Breath Easier
Management practices that benefit all horses but especially those with respiratory problems are often aimed at reducing risk of inhalation of particles, including dust, ammonia (typical exposure from stall urine), allergens, pollution, and mold.  The American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends enacting “clean air strategies” for horses with respiratory concerns. “Clean air is a definite part of the recipe for tending to a horse with respiratory problems. It is also an excellent strategy for maintaining good airway health. For a horse housed indoors, a better strategy is to move him outside into the fresh air. Feed hay off of the ground rather than in chest-high feeders. Head-down feeding enables a horse to clear dirt and dust from his nostrils and airways rather than inhaling irritating particulate matter into the lower bronchioles and lungs. Shake open flakes of hay and soak each thoroughly with water before you feed it. This holds down the dust and spores that would otherwise irritate the airways. Another effective technique for ‘cleaning’ hay is to use a commercial hay steamer to remove dust and mold spores.” (Loving, 2016). 

Steaming hay can be particularly helpful, as research has shown steaming can reduce particles, bacteria, and mold by 99% when a high quality commercial steamer is used (Moore-Coyler et al., 2016) as it’s been shown that specific temperatures and durations of time at said temperatures impact the effects on reductions in bacteria and mold (Humer et al., 2019).  On the other hand, soaking hay or “at home” steaming methods can help reduce physical contaminants but may actually increase microbial contamination (Moore-Coyler et al., 2016).  Contact your Science Supplements nutritionist if you have questions on your facilities, ways to reduce particle inhalation for your horse, or for recommendations for hay steamer manufacturers.

Veterinarians also recommend establishing an appropriate deworming schedule to reduce roundworms that can infect the lung tissues (Giedt, 2020) and vaccinating against the common equine respiratory diseases equine influenza and equine rhinopneumonitis (AKA rhino, AKA herpesvirus) every 6 months for the competition horse to reduce risk of disease transmission (American Association of Equine Practitioners, 2012; Giedt, 2020; Loving, 2016; Risk, 2014).  They also recommend contacting your veterinarian if signs of respiratory disease develop to attempt to diagnose the cause and treat appropriately to reduce further infection development and disease progression.  Preventing, diagnosing, and treating respiratory disease early is often key to reducing the risk of permanent changes in the respiratory tract and preventing secondary diseases from developing. 

Feed to Breath
Another consideration for horses with respiratory disease is ensuring the horse eats high quality, palatable feed, as appetite may be diminished with reduced ability to smell and difficulty breathing while eating.  Reduced feed intake could lead to weight loss, reduced capacity to fuel the immune system, and further reduced tissue strength in the respiratory tract.  Consider adding water or oil to dusty feeds to reduce inhalation irritation.  Also, ensure access to clean water and monitor your horse for proper hydration, as water is a major component of healthy mucus consistency, and dehydration can lead to thicker mucus that accumulates in the respiratory tract more easily (Rush, 2014).  Electrolyte intake can help increase water intake, so adding electrolytes to your horse’s diet can help facilitate mucus hydration.  Your Science Supplements nutritionist would be happy to help you evaluate your feed options and find ways to aid feed and water intake.

A complementary route of protecting the equine respiratory tract is to help develop your horse’s immune function and respiratory tissue integrity by supplementing with bioavailable antioxidants to provide tissue protection and aid repair (Avellini et al., 1999; Brummer et al., 2013; El-Shaer et al., 2012; Velázquez-Cantón et al., 2018), as well as key minerals that facilitate development of tissues for respiratory tract quality, provide immune system support, and are associated with beneficial effects in respiratory diseases (Abdulhamid et al., 2008; El-Attar et al., 2009; El-Shaer et al., 2012; Mahabir et al., 2007).  Further, providing anti-inflammatory components to your horse’s diet can help ease airflow through the tract and reduce allergic responses (Barrager et al., 2012; Moustafa et al., 2020), as tract inflammation is a common factor in horses with IAD, asthma, chronic COPD, and RAO/heaves (Loving, 2016).  Look for a respiratory support supplement that acts quickly, can be given therapeutically for acute disorders, and also has the option of being provided at maintenance levels to help with long-term support through the stress of competition season, spring allergies, stall confinement due to injuries or weather, or for horses with diagnosed respiratory diseases who need chronic support. 

Click here to see our proven respiratory product RespirAid


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