Supporting Your Horse’s Airways Through Nutrition

If your horse is living in an area with poor air quality, he might benefit from wet or steamed hay and omega-3 supplementation.
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If your horse’s indoor or outdoor air quality is damaging to his respiratory system, you might be able to support him through nutritional supplementation. | iStock

Q. This year we’ve had several bouts of very poor air quality in my area, which even affected my young, healthy horse. Is there a supplement or other change I can make to his diet to help support him through these times of dangerous air quality?

A. Unfortunately, it seems this is an issue that many of us will have to deal with more frequently as horse owners, even in areas that have not historically been prone to wildfires. There are many good articles available that outline how to monitor outdoor air quality, when it is safe to exercise, and management considerations for improving indoor air quality; so I will focus only on what we can do nutritionally.

First, if you will be closing horses inside for a period of time, you should take all measures you can to maintain good indoor air quality. If your barn cannot be ventilated well or your horses do not do well stalled, you may be better off leaving them turned out. However, if they are indoors, hay can be a major source of particulates in the air. Wetting or steaming hay will decrease the dust and mold content. It is not necessary to soak it for the 30- to 60-minute time frame as you would when you are trying to decrease sugar content—a quick dip or thorough wetting will suffice.

Hay replacements are also an option to provide dust-free fiber intake. You can replace long-stem hay with complete feeds, hay pellets or cubes, hay stretchers, or bagged/chopped forages. If you do replace hay with another forage, consider the decreased chewing time and feed smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Another hay consideration is to feed it at ground level if possible. The horse is more likely to inhale particles if they are picking hay from a net or manger at chest-height or higher. Eating in a natural, head-down position also helps with clearance and drainage from the respiratory tract.

The primary ingredient or nutrient that has been shown to be especially important for respiratory health is omega-3 fatty acids, for two reasons. These fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes throughout the body, including in the lungs, to support the integrity and pliability of the tissues. Secondly, omega-3 sources, especially those which supply or are highly converted to DHA and EPA (specific long-chain omega-3s), have anti-inflammatory properties. During times of respiratory challenge, or for horses that suffer from asthma or allergies, adding a high-quality omega-3 supplement to a well-balanced diet is likely the most evidence-backed nutritional measure you can take to support your horse’s respiratory health.

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Written by:

Anna Pesta Dunaway, PhD, is a nutritionist on the equine technical solutions team at Purina Animal Nutrition. She is responsible for helping bring innovative solutions from the research team out to the field. Pesta Dunaway spends most of her time providing technical consultations and support to the sales team on the East Coast, as well as speaking on equine nutrition at horse owner meetings and professional conferences. She earned her BS in animal science from Kansas State University and received both her MS and PhD in animal nutrition from the University of Nebraska. Her graduate research focused on the use of high-fat diets and manipulating the microbial community in the gut. Anna resides in Aiken, South Carolina, and is a lifelong equestrian with a special interest in the nutrition and development of the future sport horse.

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