Our columnist shares her daily routine for keeping the allergy-afflicted equine athlete breathing easy.
I’m walking through my barn aisle as I neurotically do multiple times throughout the day, scrolling down a mental to-do list that never seems to get any shorter.
My eyes dart from stall to stall, checking each horse as I pass by for anything out of the ordinary. Oh, the new horse pulled his blankets into his stall and is now using them as a misguided toy! That’s always fun.
I resume my tour. Everyone’s fine and happily munching hay as I turn on my heel to walk back toward my office.
And that’s when I hear it. The Anonymous Cough.
I freeze in my tracks and whirl around, ears straining and eyes searching the barn in the general direction of the noise. Which corner did it come from? Who did it sound like? Was it Tate? Maybe it was a one-and-done kind of cough. Maybe it is the beginning of Equine SARS. (OK, perhaps that last one is bit of an overreaction.)
Most of the time a random cough will be just that—random. But as head groom and manager at Sinead Halpin Equestrian, it’s my job to be prepared, and in fact to prevent, that long-odds alternative. Because for a serious event horse, even a single cough isn’t to be taken lightly.
In 2009, after Tate (formally known as Manoir De Carneville, Sinead’s now-famous four-star partner) came up with a nosebleed at a CCI**, we learned he suffers from an allergy. We’ve since worked out a system of management that can control the issue, and it has in no way inhibited his trademark Twinkle Toes performances. He’s galloped around some of the toughest four-stars in the world since then, proving he belongs at the top of the sport. (Even if he is that kid in class who prohibits every other kid from bringing peanut products to school.) What can I say? He is French.
No Lung, No Four-Star
Given this history, coughing is always an immediate red flag in our barn. Catching the onset of lung irritation as early as possible is the key to a successful season when you’re dealing with a horse prone to allergies. They say no foot, no horse, which is true. But let me also tell you, no lung, no four-star!
All horses cough from time to time, and the list of causes is infinite and admittedly impossible to eradicate. Naturally, a professional groom’s first instinct is to take the four-star horse and place him in a padded room with a lovely window and filtered air and a natural spring. His hay will always be second cut, and it will be steamed to perfection, and we will live in a magical place where the seasons change back and forth between the pleasantries of spring and autumn with absolutely no negative effects of Mother Nature. Apparently that is unrealistic, but a groom can dream.
The reality is that no matter what, horses live in barns, and barns have dust, mold and debris in the air. So it’s my job (and yours, as your horse’s caretaker) to try to control as many of those reactors as possible on a daily basis.
You know that moment when you’re cleaning stalls in the morning and the sunlight filters in through the window just so, and suddenly you see all those bits of dust and bedding floating in the air all aglow? This is your wake-up call. Your equine athlete is breathing in that air—and all the stuff in it—every day.
So how do you reduce irritants in order to improve lung health? First and foremost, I try to get my horses out as much as possible. Adequate turnout is just as important as quality feed and great footing. Horses need to be outside as much as possible in the fresh air, just being horses, with their noses on the ground. In a perfect world, all of my horses would live outside all day and all night.
Unfortunately, great turnout just isn’t feasible for everyone, and if you’re in this category of owners, you’re going to have to work even harder to keep your barn well ventilated. This might be counter-intuitive, especially in the colder months; while I would love nothing more than to close up our barn like a bomb shelter in winter and spring, that would just be asking for trouble. Put on another coat, grab a scarf, suck it up and open up those doors.
Sweep, Steam, Sprinkle And Soak
Next, simple as it may seem, keep the aisles clean—preferably with good old-fashioned manual labor. Do not use leaf blowers with horses in the barn! Personally I prefer the broom, and I like to sprinkle water before I sweep to keep the dust and debris low in the air. Oh, and did I mention not to use leaf blowers with horses in the barn? These machines are great for a quick tidying of the aisle when everyone’s turned out (or states away, even better), but the amount of crap they project into the air can send the healthiest set of lungs into a coughing frenzy.
Inside the stalls, we keep the fronts where the horses tend to eat their hay and feed swept clean in order to keep their noses out of the shavings as much as possible. Sinead has also taken old plastic barrels and cut them in half for hay tubs. This is a super-easy DIY project, and not only will it keep your horse healthier and allow him to eat in a natural head-down position, it’ll also save you time in picking stalls. (Though if you decide to do this, make sure you don’t leave jagged edges on the barrels!)
The next question is: Just how dusty is your bedding? If you walk out of the barn after morning chores tinted a lovely shade of sawdust, it’s time to switch! These days there’s a variety of dust-free bedding available. I have to give a shout out to Guardian, who makes several different flakes as well as the pelleted bedding. Regardless of what you use, don’t be afraid to sprinkle it down every once in awhile if you’re sneezing every time you pick a stall.
Hay is another obvious source of potential irritation. All hay has mold spores naturally, along with dust and filaments breaking off at a rapid pace and floating through the air straight toward those big, beautiful nostrils. But hay is also delicious.
Make sure you’re getting good hay. “Well, duh,” you say. “I’m not trying to feed bad hay.” But I don’t care how basic and simple it sounds—it’s not an easy task, and sometimes you just have to turn up your nose on behalf of your horse. If you don’t like the hay you’ve been delivered, call your hay guy and ask for better hay. Not all hay is created equal, and your horse deserves the best.
Around our barn, we’re huge proponents of steaming hay. Tate is pretty well known as the poster boy for Haygain, actually. Steaming helps kill mold and rids dust and other irritants, but it keeps the vital nutrients intact. I also find I can get horses to eat a higher volume of hay when it’s steamed. Win-Win!
If you already have access to a steamer, steam to your heart’s content. If not, and you have a horse with chronic respiratory issues, a steamer is the one item I’d suggest you pinch your pennies to get in the future. If it’s just not a feasible investment for you, your next best option is to try hosing or dunking your hay thoroughly right before feeding, which will wash the loose particles away.
While soaking hay has been common and popular for generations, studies have shown that the longer hay sits in water, the more nutrients are pulled from the hay. This will only necessitate feeding (and spending) more. And remember, all hay should be checked thoroughly before feeding. Like my mother always said, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
The newest device we’re using in our barn lately is the Flexineb nebulizer, which is finding growing popularity in the eventing and steeplechasing communities. It’s battery powered and connects the actual nebulizer to a rubber chamber that’s placed over the horse’s nose and secured similarly to a halter. When the Flexineb is turned on, whatever is in the nebulizer cup is vaporized, entering the chamber and being inhaled by the horse. It can be used with an assortment of pharmaceutical treatments, but I like to stick to good old saline water.
Treatments with a nebulizer open the bronchial passages and thin secretions, helping to remove lingering debris from the nostrils and lungs when a horse sneezes and coughs. In short, it’s awesome. Leading up to a big three-day, Tate will use the Flexineb multiple times a day, and I really credit the improvements in his respiratory health last summer, leading up to his second-placed finish at the Land Rover Burghley CCI**** in England, to that machine.
When it comes to improving respiratory health—or protecting a talented athlete with a peculiar sensitivity—there will always be things you can’t control. But we owe it to our horses to strive every day to set them up for success.
Every barn, horse and rider have different needs; these steps have brought me success in my program, but there are a variety of options on the market. Ask questions, do your homework, and consult with your veterinarian to help diagnose, treat and devise the best plan for ensuring happy breathing!
Megan Kepferle resides in Chester, N.J., and works as head groom and manager at Sinead Halpin Equestrian. In addition to her hands-on work with the horses in her care, she’s committed to sustainable avenues promoting good horsemanship and the sport of eventing.