The horse's respiratory system is an incredible piece of engineering, and the way it functions is fascinating to me. Not only is it an essential part of keeping horses alive, a properly functioning respiratory system is key to keeping equine athletes performing at the top of their game. Unfortunately, as we all know, equine respiratory systems often don't function quite as we'd like.

If possible, allow senior horses with heaves 24-hour pasture access and reduce the amount of hay in their diets. Both will help reduce the amount of dust the horse is exposed to.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Respiratory conditions aren't unique to senior horses, but many aging horses seem to suffer from such ailments. Dr. Mary Rose Paradis (DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM) reported during a presentation at last year's American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention that respiratory problems were the third most common presenting complaint for senior horses presented to a referral hospital. And one of the most common respiratory diseases found in aging horses is heaves (or, technically, recurrent airway obstruction or RAO).

"Although heaves is not restricted to old horses, age has also been determined to be a risk factor for RAO," Dr. Paradis said during her presentation. Additionally, she noted, 19% of older horses that were receiving medication were being treated for heaves.

Signs that an older horse might be developing or afflicted with heaves include increased coughing and respiratory effort, nasal discharge without a fever, an obvious abdominal lift at the end of exhalation, a "heave line" (a line running diagonally from the point of the hip forward to the lower edge of the ribs in the external abdominal oblique muscle caused by the persistently increased respiratory effort); and weight loss (due to the difficulty of eating while trying to breathe).

There's no cure for heaves, so Dr. Paradis said treatment centers on decreasing inflammation and bronchoconstriction (tightening of the airways). Some suggestions she provided for senior horse owners included:

  • Reducing environmental allergens, such as dust;
  • Providing 24-hour turnout;
  • Eliminating hay—which can contain dust—from the horse's diet;
  • Improving ventilation if the horse must be stalled; and
  • Administering oral or inhaled corticosteroids and bronchodilators.

Of course, it's always important to consult a veterinarian if you think your aging horse might be having breathing problems.

Despite the fact that 18-year-old Dorado does have one respiratory condition—laryngeal hemiplegia (more simply, he's a roarer)—he does not have heaves. And thinking back, none of the senior horses I've owned or managed have been afflicted with heaves either. The vast majority of the seniors I managed at the riding stable lived outside, and I think that helped prevent too much dust and debris from entering their airways.

But, because of how common it is in senior horses, I want to be sure I'm familiar with it and how to manage it should the need arise. Fortunately, on Thursday, May 29, TheHorse.com will be hosting an Ask the Vet Live event that focuses on—you guessed it—heaves! We've got two super veterinarians—Drs. Rose Nolen-Walston (DVM, Dipl. ACVIM) and Craig Shoemaker (DVM, MS)—who'll be answering your questions about helping horses with heaves. More information, a sign-up, and a form to submit your own questions are available on TheHorse.com. I'll be there—hope you'll join us!

Have you managed a horse with heaves? What worked, and what didn't?