Three horsemen explain why steamed hay is best defense against main causes of equine asthma.
by Kim F Miller
The well-documented fact that over 80% of active sport horses have some degree of respiratory problem makes more sense when you visualize the actual size of the horse’s lungs.
As Drs. Kathleen Ivester and Laurent Couetil, of the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, explain in their article on equine asthma, the super-thin lining of a horse’s lungs would occupy half a football field if it could be spread out on a flat surface.
The bloodstream takes up oxygen through this lining. The bigger the surface area, the better when it comes to quantity of air available. But bigger also means more area subject to microscopic irritants that cause inflammation: the root cause of equine asthma.
Unfortunately, the horse’s top nutrition source — hay — is the top source of these irritants — along with stall bedding. Haygain high-temperature hay steaming has become to go-to treatment for drastically reducing these irritants commonly found in even high-quality hay.
Dressage rider and veterinarian Wren Burnley, DVM; Olympic eventer Will Coleman; and World Equestrian Games show jumper Rowan Willis are among many owners who consider hay steaming essential to preventing and managing asthma and allergy-related respiratory problems.
Wren Burnley, DVM — Equine veterinarian & Grand Prix dressage rider.
Kentucky-based veterinarian Wren Burnley, DVM, understands the science behind steamed hay’s benefits, but personal evidence is really all she needed. She has asthma herself and is also a Grand Prix dressage competitor, so she understands all too well the impact of compromised respiratory function on an athlete. “I cannot stick my nose into a regular bale of hay, but I can with a bale that’s come out of the steamer,” she explains.
She recommends hay steaming for clients in her veterinary practice and it’s a must for her own horses and those in her husband’s dressage training business. That’s especially true for horses of peak competition age: typically 10 and older.
“When you look at their respiratory tracts, you see they already have a start on scarring and the tissue has lost some of its elasticity,” Dr. Burnley explains. This is normal in healthy horses performing at their peak. With even the earliest scarring and loss of elasticity, microscopic bits of dust, mold, fungi and bacteria can trigger inflammation in the airway and lungs, compromising comfort and performance. Hay steaming’s ability to reduce these irritants has myriad prevention and management benefits, she concludes.
Will Coleman, Olympic and World Equestrian Games U.S. eventer
TKS Cooley is one of Will’s top young horses, already going strong at the 4* level. He also has a mild case of Inflammatory Airway Disease, a condition on the Equine Asthma Spectrum. “I could tell on a few occasions that he was not getting enough air to do whatever the work or conditioning we were doing,” Will explains. Since putting him on steamed hay, “We’ve noticed overall improvements and a much better quality to his breathing.” All of Will’s horses get steamed hay. “At the level at which we compete, success is the result of all the little things you do adding up to give you the results you want. Steamed hay is one of those little things that can make a big difference.”
Rowan Willis, World Equestrian Games show jumper for Australia.
Rowan’s 14-year-old mare Blue Movie presents a classic example of how stealth respiratory issues can be when it comes to symptoms. This is the mare that leapt onto the world stage by winning round-one of the World Equestrian Games show jumping in 2018.
Her symptoms, nasal discharge and an occasional cough early into an exercise session, were so mild and sporadic they hadn’t caused worry. “Her minor respiratory issues didn’t stop her from jumping around, but she certainly wasn’t able to do it to the best of her abilities,” says Rowan.
Blue Movie has been on steamed hay for a year now, during which time her consistent success helped Rowan become the #1 ranked rider in Australia with a top chance for the Tokyo Olympics. Rowan counts steamed hay as critical to her ascent. He notes that nasal discharge has gone from regular to a rarity, and Blue Movie’s occasional cough early in exercise sessions is gone.
“Nowadays, the competition is so tough at the top, you need every little advantage you can get to beat the McLains and Beezies.” That’s McLain Ward and Beezie Madden, U.S. Olympic jumping veterans who are also steamed hay believers.
Equine asthma is an equal opportunity disease: it affects elite athletes and backyard buddies alike. Haygain has helped them all lead comfortable, productive lives no matter their careers.