Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Severe equine asthma

Severe equine asthma is a relatively new term used for the condition also formerly known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heaves or broken wind. It's a common chronic respiratory disorder seen in horses and ponies. In less severe cases the problem may go undetected, but may worsen over time if not treated. If exacerbated by high exposure to moulds, dust or pollens, it may present acutely as respiratory distress.

What causes RAO?

Asthma is caused by exposure to allergens, such as moulds and dust. Environments in which there is high exposure result in an increased likelihood of asthma occurring, eg horses and ponies stabled for long periods in dusty surroundings with poor ventilation. This triggers inflammation of the airways, constriction of the smaller airways (bronchi) and increased mucus secretion in the lungs. This progressively causes damage to the lungs causing an insidious onset of clinical signs although acute episodes may occur.

Horses may also develop signs in the summer, where the allergens that cause lung damage are pollens. For this condition the horse will have to be stabled to avoid allergen exposure during the high-risk summer months.

What signs should I look out for?

Early signs may be very mild or only seen at exercise with occasional coughing. If untreated this may progress over time to a more persistent chronic cough. A thick white-yellow nasal discharge and sluggishness at exercise may also be present. Over time a 'heave-line' (over-developed abdominal muscles) may develop due to the increased expiratory breathing effort.

Acute flare ups can present dramatically with a markedly elevated breathing rate and effort, flared nostrils and standing with the head down and elbows out. The horse may also appear very distressed. If this occurs, you should call your vet immediately.

What should I do if I think my horse has severe equine asthma?

You should call your vet immediately, who will carry out a thorough examination.

The examination may include listening to the lungs after exercise or 'rebreathing', this is when your horse breathes into a large plastic bag which stimulates the effects of exercise by limiting oxygen supply.

Crackles or wheezes may be evident, and the horse may find it difficult and have to breathe much faster to compensate. If further diagnostics are required, endoscopy (a fibreoptic camera is passed up the nostrils) can reveal evidence of mucus in the trachea. By placing small amounts of fluids into the lungs the vet may also perform a 'bronchoalveolar lavage' or 'tracheal wash'. The fluid is retrieved in order to look at the types of cells present within the lung airways. A high percentage of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) are suggestive of asthma.

How can asthma be treated?

The most important method of treating asthma is through management changes. Ideally the horse should be turned out to pasture as much as possible and spend minimal time stabled. If stabled, horses should be in clean, well ventilated stables. Shavings or cardboard bedding are preferred as bedding material as they contain fewer mould spores and dust than straw. All the stables in the vicinity need to be similarly maintained or the environment will remain high risk for the horse. Hay should be soaked or steamed, or changed to haylage, and the horse should be fed from the ground to aid drainage of mucus out of the lungs.

If management changes alone are insufficient to control the asthma, your vet may prescribe some medications. The most effective medications available are inhaled drugs using inhalers identical to those used by human asthmatics. Inhalation of the drugs allows high concentrations to reach the lungs. The most commonly used medications are bronchodilators and steroid anti-inflammatories. This may be required for long-term use or only for flare-ups, depending on the severity of the disease.