Better Breathing

When you walk down the center aisle of your barn, does the ceiling drip condensation on your head? Does the smell of ammonia make your nostrils twitch and your eyes water–even when the stalls are freshly cleaned? Worst of all, was that a hollow

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When you walk down the center aisle of your barn, does the ceiling drip condensation on your head? Does the smell of ammonia make your nostrils twitch and your eyes water–even when the stalls are freshly cleaned? Worst of all, was that a hollow, chronic cough you heard? From more than one of your barn’s equine residents?

All of these are signs that the air quality in your barn leaves something to be desired. That’s not at all uncommon, seeing as how barns tend to be designed more with human comfort than equine health in mind. Fearing bitterly cold winds, we build our stables to shut up tight in winter; we take care to seal up every drafty crack. In doing so, we block the very air flow so essential to our horse’s respiratory health.


In some circumstances, horses might spend 24 hours a day in their stalls, especially when the winter weather has made paddocks sheets of ice, or sticky seas of mud. The air in a barn quickly can become stagnant and foul when horses are trapped inside-not surprising when you consider that practically everything in the environment of a barn contributes to poor air quality, from the dusts and molds in hay, grain, and bedding to the ammonia fumes emanating from equine urine and manure. Fungal material, bacteria and viruses, particles of fecal matter, methane, hydrogen sulfide, even microscopic bits of plant material and insect parts all are measurable pollutants in stables. You want to sneeze just thinking about it.


Poor air quality is the culprit in a number of performance-limiting allergic responses in horses (usually lumped under the term COPD, for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and more commonly called “heaves” or “broken wind”). In addition, air quality has been implicated in certain types of non-allergic responses described as “small airway disease,” which tend to affect younger horses and can have a major impact on athletic efforts on the racetrack or in the show ring.


Foals in particular are vulnerable to high levels of ammonia in the atmosphere, often succumbing to respiratory infections once their immature systems have been compromised by the fumes. There’s also a demonstrated correlation between high antibody titers (indicating the horse’s body has been fighting infectious agents) and horses which have been stabled when compared to horses which live outside 24 hours a day

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Written by:

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She’s written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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