Breathing in Horses - what is normal ?

If you never control the horse's breathing, you shouldn't hold your breath now. It is not uncommon for riders to forget this aspect. However, the breathing of our four-legged friend can indicate relaxation, stress or pain. For example, if your horse is breathing too heavily after exercise, this could indicate breathing problems. For this reason, regular listening for breaths should be part of the routine. You can find out everything about breathing in horses in this article.


Why should I check the horse's breathing?


On the one hand, breathing can say a lot about your horse's condition , but it can also provide information about its health. As with taking temperature, it is important to check the horse's normal breathing rate. Well, if it's healthy. This is the only way you can get an idea of ​​what your horse's standard breathing rate is. This way you will notice more quickly if your horse is breathing differently as a result of pain or fever .


How does breathing work in horses?


The lungs of our darlings, as probably everyone should know, are much larger than those of humans. The total volume is about 40-55 kg . However, the process of breathing is identical to ours. The air is taken in through the nostrils, where it is heated. Then it flows past the larynx into the trachea.

The air then travels to the bronchi, where the bronchioles are located. The alveoli are located on these bronchioles. This is where gas exchange takes place. Oxygen is removed from the air, which is used for energy production, and carbon dioxide is excreted at the same time.

Due to its special structure, the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract cleans the air of suspended particles. The foreign bodies then either get out through the nostrils or are swallowed through the pharynx via the esophagus.

the total volume of a horse's lung is about 40-55kg 


Count breaths in the horse - control flank breathing


All you really need to do is watch your horse's flanks . Even with shallow, calm breathing, you can see the individual breaths here. All you have to do is stand diagonally next to your horse.

IMPORTANT : Breathing cannot simply be identified at the nostrils! Since they are not necessarily meaningful. For example, they quickly move differently when your horse smells something, although breathing remains the same.

In order to be able to count the breaths, the easiest way is to find someone to help you to stop the time (or you can use your mobile phone). When counting, you must choose between inhaling and exhaling . (The exhalation is usually easier to recognize) Then you count the breaths for at least 20 seconds (at least 1 minute if the rhythm is irregular). If you're only counting for 20 seconds, multiply the value by three.


What is the normal breathing rate for horses?


When the horse is at rest, it breathes eight to 16 times per minute . Each breath contains six to eight liters that are inhaled and exhaled. If the horse moves and exerts itself, for example when riding, the respiratory rate can increase to 120 to 150 breaths per minute.

However, breathing should be at 10-30 times per minute with light exertion and between 30 and 70 times per minute with moderate exertion. A foal shortly after birth breathes 60 to 80 times a minute. However, this is within the first few hours. After three to four hours, breathing should then be between 20 and 40 times a minute.

Control the horse's breathing for default values


If you want to find out the standard value for your horse's breathing rate, your four-legged friend should have had rest for at least half an hour beforehand - and that means really standing. Because even with small activities such as perhaps a short gallop with the herd on the meadow, breathing increases immediately.

Checking the horse's breathing as a performance test


you can use respiratory rate check as a performance test, as it is a good indicator of your horse's firness 

You can also use the respiratory rate check as a performance test, as it is a good indicator of your horse's fitness. For endurance rides, for example, the frequency is determined. In this way it can be determined whether the horse is overexerting itself or how quickly it is recovering from the exertion. You can easily adopt this procedure for your own training:

To do this, simply check the breathing rate right at the end of the exercise and then at 10-minute intervals . This tells you how long it takes the horse to get back to the standard value. The quicker your horse breathes normally again, the better trained it is. For comparison values, it is important to always carry out this check after the same load units!


Type of breathing & breath sounds in the horse


It is not only important to measure the frequency, but also to pay attention to breathing sounds and the type of breathing . Breaths can be pressed, jerky, drawn out or even sighing. Any breathing noises can also provide direct information about a possible cause of the changed breathing. To control this, you can simply place the ear on your horse's side . If you hear a rustling, whistling, hissing, crackling or bubbling, something is wrong.


If your horse is breathing normally, the chest wall and abdomen will move about the same amount. It looks different if, for example, the stomach does not move . This indicates pain in the abdomen, such as is the case with colic or intestinal obstruction. If, on the other hand, only the stomach moves, this can be an indication of pain in the chest. So, for example, pneumonia.

If breathing is significantly delayed (i.e. both inhaling and exhaling take significantly longer), this is an indication of a problem. When it is damp, the horse needs a lot of strength to breathe and over time the so-called steam channel develops at the bottom of the rib cage. A clear warning sign that should not be taken lightly!


How do respiratory problems affect horses?


Your horse should always have enough fresh air available

As mentioned earlier, horse breathing is an indicator of relaxation, stress or pain . A respiratory disease has direct consequences and means a direct threat to the oxygen uptake of the four-legged friends.

A horse that has a lung disease, for example, is tired much faster than a four-legged friend with intact health. The whole body is affected as the blood supply is starved of oxygen . 

This is then directly reflected in the training and performance of the horses. In addition, breathing is related to the movement rhythm of the horse. Especially when galloping, one breath is taken with each jump.

So if breathing problems arise, movement will be affected . The horse is out of step. These can be triggered by a variety of things, even small things like a leg that is too tight or propulsion aids given at the wrong time. If you suspect that a respiratory illness is imminent, a veterinarian should be consulted as soon as possible to avoid long-term damage.


Breathing problems and their causes


Respiratory diseases can be located in either the upper or lower airways and can be either infectious or non-infectious .

If your horse stands on straw and gets relatively dry hay, the dust could be a trigger for the urge to cough . It is important: Reduce the dust content in your horse's ambient air to a minimum. Irrigation of the paddock or pasture area can also be used as a measure here

But dust isn't the only cause of breathing problems. Here is an overview of the most common respiratory problems in horses:


§  Infectious by bacteria, viruses and parasites

§  Not infectious due to hypersensitivity to allergens


§  inflammation of the bronchi

§  Often as a result of a viral infection or allergic reaction to dust containing fungal spores

§  Manifests as a strong, wet cough and a clear, milky-yellowish nasal discharge

§  Persistent bronchitis can lead to asthma or dizziness

Ductness (COPD)

§  Result of delayed bronchitis

§  Bronchitis that has become chronic = COB (chronic obstructive bronchitis)

§  Cough becomes dry and toneless as mucus thickens and airways narrow

§  Breathing gasping and jerky with enormous exertion of abdominal compression

§  Clearly visible steam channel

§  Overpressure in the lungs can cause the air sacs in the lungs to burst (pulmonary emphysema)

§  Lung damage irreparable


§  Allergy to pollen or fungal spores from hay and straw dust

§  Usually occurs in the course of bronchitis

§  Irritated lung mucosa during bronchitis is additionally irritated by pollen, fungal spores, etc. à sensitization to these substances develops

§  Coughing and increased formation of mucus as a defense reaction upon contact with the foreign bodies


§  Inflammation of the mucous membrane caused by infections or irritating substances

§  Chronic variant can cause coughing, but primarily causes an extraneous noise when breathing

§  Yellow-white discharge from the nostrils possible


§  By viral infection

§  Comparable to a cold


How can I help my horse with respiratory problems?


First things first: Always involve a vet! He has expert knowledge and can tell you what needs to be done and which medications will make your horse fit again. In addition to drug treatment, you can still help your horse by observing the following things.

Your horse should always have enough fresh air available . Put it outside as often as possible. If this is not possible, keep windows or barn doors open so that enough fresh air can get into the barn. But be careful, if it is very windy and cold and your horse is in the draft, it could catch a cold. In the case of particularly sensitive animals, keeping them in an open stable is most suitable. This way the animals can retreat when they get too uncomfortable, but still have fresh air at their disposal.

As previously mentioned, dry hay or straw can be a trigger for a cough . You can reduce the dust by using low-dust shavings as bedding instead of straw. It is also important here that if straw or hay is given, it must be free of fungal spores. You can always moisten the hay a little before feeding.

Herbs are a good helper for respiratory problems. Give your horse proven herbs such as marshmallow, Icelandic moss, peppermint, liquorice, eucalyptus, fennel or thyme .

And above all, regular mucking out is a must! The horse should not be in the box. Pasture, riding arena and hall floor should be watered regularly to prevent dust from being stirred up. You should do your cleaning outdoors. Regular deworming and vaccination can also help.



Irregular breathing – stress indicator


Who does not know it? A violent, trumpet-like snort - for example in the field or in the pasture, if a horse felt in danger . But even the smallest changes in breathing that can hardly be heard or felt are a sign that something is wrong. As mentioned above, just the wrong help when riding can put the horse in a stressful situation that it tries to wriggle out of.

Every rider should also pay attention to the horse's breathing while riding, because this is how your own mistakes become visible. If you notice that your horse is changing its breathing, incorporate many pauses in stretching postures and shorten the sequences of changes . At the same time you work on the relaxation of your horse.


Additional hint


If you notice breathing problems in your horse, you can also examine the mucous membrane in the horse's mouth . To do this, you can simply pull your lower lip down a bit. If the gums, the inside of the lips or the tongue are bluish or whitish, you should call a vet immediately! This indicates a lack of oxygen and can be life-threatening.


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