Tackling Heaves: How to Manage Horses with Heaves

March 15, 2023
Horse with heaves

Managing a horse with heaves can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of your equine companion’s life. Understanding what heaves is and how you can best treat and manage it for your horse will help ensure that they stay healthy in the long term. We’ll discuss what horses with heaves are, treatment options available, as well as tips on prevention so you know exactly what steps to take if your horse ever develops symptoms of heaves.

What is Heaves in Horses?

Heaves, also known as equine asthma or recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), is a chronic respiratory disorder in horses. It is caused by an allergic reaction to dust, mold, and other irritants in the horse’s environment. Heaves can be severe and life-threatening if left untreated, so it’s important for horse owners to know the symptoms of heaves and how to treat them.

Definition of Heaves:

Heaves is a chronic lung disease that affects adult horses more than younger ones. The lung inflammation due to allergens like dust, molds, pollens or hay fragments that enter the lungs can cause heaves in adult horses more than younger ones. Bronchial constriction, caused by the inflammation of the lungs, leads to difficulty in respiration for horses.

Symptoms of Heaves:

Symptoms of heaves include labored breathing with visible effort from your horse’s nostrils; coughing; nasal discharge; decreased performance levels; weight loss; exercise intolerance; depression/lethargy; increased heart rate while at rest and elevated body temperature during periods of activity. Some horses may even develop a “heave line” along their sides where they have difficulty filling their lungs with air due to constricted muscles around their ribcage area making it harder for them to take deep breaths.

Causes of Heaves:

The most common cause of heavey horses is exposure to dusty environments such as barns with poor ventilation or summer pasture-associated obstructive pulmonary disease (SPAOPD). Other potential triggers include feeding dry hay instead of soaked hay or round bales rather than cubes fed from bags since these forms create more dust particles when disturbed by wind or animals walking through them and can worsen existing cases too.

Moldy hay is another source of heaves as well but this isn’t always easy for owners to detect unless they test samples themselves – something we recommend all owners do periodically just in case.   I did have a horse at a boarding stable once who was fed moldy hay and developed heaves so bad a couple of times I thought I would have to have her put down.

Additionally some breeds like Arabians seem more susceptible than others so genetics may play a role here too.

Heaves in horses is a respiratory disorder that can be managed with proper medication, dietary changes and environmental management. With the right treatment plan, owners of horses suffering from heaves can help their horse live an improved quality of life. Next we will look at how to treat and manage this condition.

Key Takeaway: Heaves is a chronic respiratory disorder in horses caused by an allergic reaction to dust, mold, and other irritants. It is essential for equestrians to be aware of the indicators and address them rapidly, as neglecting this affliction can lead to fatal consequences. Heaves can also be triggered by dusty environments such as barns with poor ventilation or feeding dry hay instead of soaked hay.

Treatment and Management of Heaves

Medication for Heaves:

When it comes to treating horses with heaves, veterinarians often prescribe medication such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids. Bronchodilators are typically used in mild cases of heaves to open up the airways and make breathing easier. Corticosteroids can be administered orally or injected directly into the horse’s lungs. These medications help reduce inflammation in the airways and decrease mucus production, allowing for improved airflow. It is important to note that these medications should only be given under veterinary supervision, as they can have serious side effects if not monitored properly.

For horses suffering from heaves, dietary management is a must. To reduce dust exposure which can worsen symptoms of the condition, hay should be fed from slow feeders if possible, rather than round bales or large piles on the ground.

horses with heaves

The best quality hay available should also be chosen; moldy hay is a no-go due to its potential allergenic properties that could further aggravate their respiratory system. Supplementing with soaked hay may help reduce dust particles but bear in mind that it has less nutritional value than dry hay so it shouldn’t replace good quality dry hay completely.

The treatment and management of heaves in horses is an ongoing process that requires dedication, consistency, and understanding. With proper care, the prognosis for a horse with heaves can be greatly improved; therefore it’s important to understand what factors affect this long-term outlook.

Key Takeaway: Heaves is a condition that affects horses, and can be managed through medication prescribed by a vet, as well as dietary management. To reduce dust exposure which aggravates the condition hay should be fed from nets or slow feeders rather than round bales; also good quality dry hay must replace moldy hay to prevent any allergenic properties affecting the respiratory system.

Long Term Prognosis for Horses with Heaves

When it comes to horses with heaves, the prognosis can vary greatly. The outlook for a horse enduring this ailment is dependent on multiple aspects, including age, intensity of symptoms and how well the animal is handled. Older horses are more likely to develop heaves than younger ones, so their prognosis may not be as good. Younger racehorses who have been exposed to high levels of dust or mold in barns or stalls may also be at higher risk for developing severe cases of heaves.

The severity of a horse’s heave line will also affect its prognosis; those with milder symptoms tend to fare better than those with severe episodes that require medication and environmental management. Horses that are treated early and consistently can often live normal lives even if they suffer from chronic cases of heaves. However, adult horses that have had years of exposure to dusty environments may never fully recover due to permanent damage caused by inflammation in their lungs over time.

horses with heaves

To boost the long-term prospects for horses with heaves, owners should prioritize dietary regulation and mitigating environmental triggers like dust particles or mold spores in hay and bedding materials. Utilizing top quality hay is recommended; whether it be soaked or dry depending on individual needs, round bales are typically best avoided due to their propensity of generating more dust when stored incorrectly outside during warm weather months.

Hay cubes are a great alternative since they have less airborne particulates than conventional hay bales but still supply vital nutrients needed by your horse’s diet plan while bypassing any chance of inhalation issues related directly towards seasonal pasture-associated obstructive pulmonary disease (SPAOPD).

Furthermore, wetting down feed before feeding it out can significantly reduce airborne particulates in worst barns which may further add to exacerbating SPAOPD within vulnerable horses based upon their specific characteristics such as breed type itself along side overall health status all together amalgamated into one single equation regarding total animal welfare considerations being taken into account here too.

In order to ensure the best possible care for horses with heaves, it is essential to comprehend their long-term outlook. With proper preventive measures and environmental management, it is possible to reduce the risk of developing heaves or other respiratory illnesses in horses.

Key Takeaway: Horses with heaves require careful management to ensure a positive prognosis, such as dietary regulation and mitigating environmental triggers like dust particles or mold spores in hay. To give your horse the best chance of recovery, consider utilizing quality hay cubes and wetting down feed before feeding it out – these steps can help reduce airborne particulates that could otherwise exacerbate obstructive pulmonary disease.

Prevention of Heaves in Horses

horses with heavesVaccinations are a key part of preventing heaves in horses. Horses  should be vaccinated annually for equine influenza and  rhinopneumonitis, two common respiratory viruses that can cause  severe inflammation of the airways and lead to heaves. It is also  important to keep up with vaccinations against other diseases such  as tetanus, rabies, and West Nile virus which can all contribute  to a horse’s weakened immune system.

Proper nutrition and exercise are essential for maintaining healthy lungs in horses. A balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals helps ensure proper lung development while regular exercise increases circulation throughout the body including the lungs.

Fresh forage-based diets have been shown to reduce dust levels within the stable environment which can help prevent heaves from developing due to exposure to allergens or irritants. Additionally, limiting access to hay when possible will reduce dust particles that may become airborne when horses feed on it directly from their stalls or paddocks.

Key Takeaway: Maintaining immunizations and providing a nutritious diet plus regular exercise are essential for warding off heaves in horses. Keeping the dust levels low by limiting access to hay will also help keep them healthy from allergens or irritants that may lead to heaves.

FAQs in Relation to Horses With Heaves

Should a horse with heaves be ridden?

You can ride a horse with heaves, depending on its severity; just go easy and don’t overwork them.  You’ll know if you’ve overdone it when your horse starts to breathe heavily.  Time to stop.

horses with heavesHeaves, also known as Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), is an equine respiratory disorder characterized by coughing and difficulty breathing. Horses affected by this condition are likely to be uncomfortable during exercise due to the increased effort needed for respiration, which can lead to further complications such as fatigue or loss of balance. Therefore, it is best practice to limit strenuous activity in horses with heaves until their condition has been properly managed and stabilized.

What is the best thing for horses with heaves?

The best thing for horses with heaves is to reduce their exposure to dust and other irritants, as well as maintain a consistent exercise program. A balanced diet of hay and grain can help support respiratory health, while avoiding over-supplementation. High humidity levels also aggravate horses with heaves.  I sent a horse to Alberta to get it away from the humid Ontario weather.  She has been doing much better in a drier environment.

Veterinary oversight should be regularly administered to track the horse’s condition and provide suitable treatment if required. Finally, providing an environment that minimizes stress can help keep horses with heaves healthy and comfortable.

What is the most common cause of heaves in horses?

Heaves, also known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), is a chronic respiratory disorder most commonly caused by allergens in the horse’s environment. Allergens, including dust particles, molds, and pollens in the air may bring about irritation of the lower respiratory pathways which can cause a build-up of mucus and trouble breathing. In some cases heaves may be triggered by exposure to certain types of hay or straw. Treatment typically includes avoiding triggers, reducing stress levels and providing medications that reduce inflammation in the lungs.

What happens to a horse with heaves?

Symptoms of heaves include coughing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing or rapid shallow breaths, increased respiration rate and effort with exercise, weight loss due to decreased appetite and lethargy. Treatment for heaves includes reducing the horse’s exposure to allergens and managing symptoms with drugs like bronchodilators, anti-inflammatories, mucolytics, antibiotics (for secondary infections), nutritional supplements (e.g., omega 3 fatty acids) that can help lung function; as well as providing rest from strenuous activities.


It is important to remember that horses with heaves can still lead a long and healthy life if they are managed properly. Heaves can be prevented by avoiding dusty environments, providing adequate nutrition and exercise, and regularly monitoring the horse’s respiratory health. With proper management of diet, environment, exercise and medical care for horses with heaves it is possible to keep them comfortable throughout their lifetime.

Veterinaryhealthcentre.org and Totalequineveterinaryassociates.com are both good resources to find out more about heaves.


I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here

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