Dozens of studies have linked air quality to horse respiratory health.
Although, while we often consider air quality in stables and barns and work tirelessly to take steps to minimise harm to our horse’s respiratory systems in these environments, we sometimes overlook another culprit that contributes to respiratory disease: the arena.
In this article, we examine the role that dusty indoor arenas play in respiratory disease in horses and share a few simple ways that you can support your horse’s long-term respiratory health, even during the Autumn and Winter months when training outside may be limited.
Health is in the Air
Your horse’s respiratory system is perfectly designed for physical performance. Encompassing the upper airways of the nostrils, larynx and trachea and the lower airways of the lungs, your horse’s respiratory system is capable of drawing in hundreds of litres of air.
From rest to intense exercise, the number of breaths your horse draws per minute may increase tenfold. During intensive training, your horse may inhale more than 1,000 litres of air every minute, powering the body’s movements to achieve athletic feats.
Entering through the nasal passages, the air moves down the trachea and into the lungs. There, they enter the bronchioles and alveoli, which are small and specialised airways that allow the inhaled air to diffuse into the blood for transportation to the rest of the body.
When air quality is poor, your horse’s physical performance is diminished. If routinely exposed to this air, whether in their stall or within the confines of a dusty arena, the risk of damage to your horse’s respiratory system increases and with it, respiratory disease.
Researchers have identified just how many airborne particles it takes to inflict injury on a horse’s respiratory system. In conditions where airborne particles appear in numbers greater than 2.4 mg/cubic metre, the incidence of respiratory disease in horses rises.
It may be argued that a dusty indoor arena is more harmful to your horse’s respiratory health than the filthiest stall. This is because in the arena, a working horse is breathing harder and pulling more airborne particles deeper into their lungs.
Respiratory Diseases in Horses
What may start as a simple cough in the working horse, over the years may escalate into severe airway inflammation and lung damage that develops into respiratory diseases such as Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD) and Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO).
One of the first studies into air quality and dust particle concentration in indoor riding arenas was conducted in 2015 by a group of German researchers (Kemper et al) who assessed four indoor riding areas in Saxony-Anhalt on a monthly basis for one year.
The longitudinal study measured concentrations of particles in six fractions, from 0.3 to 5.0 μm, collected at four points in the arenas after they were used by one horse that performed a standardised riding session.
The study found a significant increase in the numbers of particles after the riding sessions at the two heights measured, which included at the approximate height of the horses’ noses (1.5m) and the riders’ noses (2.5m).
The study’s authors acknowledged their results were collected after only one horse and rider used the arena, and they predicted the production of particles would likely increase with more horses and riders.
Inflammatory Airway Disease
Inflammatory Airway Disease is a respiratory disease that typically affects younger horses from as early as one year of age. It usually presents as a cough, poor performance or excess mucus dispelled from the nostrils, often following exercise. IAD is now also commonly referred to as Equine Asthma, and is classified as Mild, Moderate & Severe depending on your veterinarians evaluation of your horses symptoms and respiratory performance.
While the precise cause of IAD is unknown, equine veterinarians associate this respiratory disease with the inhalation of irritants, such as arena dust, as well as air pollution. One of the first steps to treating IAD is reducing the horse’s exposure to these irritants.
Recurrent Airway Obstruction
Recurrent Airway Obstruction, known as heaves, is similar to IAD in that it is characterised by chronic cough, nasal discharge, and difficulty breathing. Although, horses with RAO also experience episodes of airway obstruction when exposed to the offending allergen.
The average onset of RAO is nine years of age, and it is suspected that around 10 percent or more of mature horses suffer from this respiratory disease. Like IAD, the single most important treatment is environmental and lifestyle management to reduce exposure.
Is Your Arena Too Dusty?
So, how can you tell if your indoor riding arena is too dusty? Don’t worry, you don’t need a scientist to measure the concentration of dust particles! All it takes, is a couple of common-sense checks to determine if your arena is safe for riding:
- Needed to blow your nose after your ride and noticed the tissue was filled with dust-laden mucus? That’s a clear sign of too much dust!
- Found you could write your name (or your horse’s name) in the dust on a ledge, chair, or mirror after your ride? The arena footing is too dusty!
- Ideally, it should take at least one week for dust to accumulate on a freshly cleaned surface, such as a wall-mounted arena mirror. If you find that dust is accumulating faster than this with a simple finger swipe test, there’s a few things you can do!
Tips to Reduce Dust and Support Horse Respiratory Health
- Water it: if you live in a northern climate and are restricted to an indoor riding arena for part of the year, water the surface of your arena before you ride to reduce the number of particles that can be stirred up during training and exercise.
- Replace it: while watering is a good short-term solution, the best long-term investment for your horse’s respiratory health is to use a dust-free arena footing.
- Let it flow: if the weather permits, open the doors and windows to allow air to ventilate while you ride. The same applies in your horse’s stable or barn.
- Ride outside: as much as you can, train and exercise your horse outside in the fresh air. Don’t forget hitting the trails is a great mental break for your horse!
- Turnout: provide as much turnout time for your horse as possible. To learn more about the benefits of turnout for your horse, read our article here.
- The right technology: we recommend using the Flexineb E3 if your horse requires any medications or natural solutions for their respiratory health.
Remember, it’s not just your horse that is affected by dust! When you ride or complete chores in a dusty environment, you’re also exposed to potentially harmful airborne particles. Minimising dust is vital for horse and human health.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. Always consult your veterinarian if your horse as any health-related issue or is exhibiting symptoms.