Do you keep your horse in a warm barn in the winter? If so, it’s important to bring in fresh, healthy air. Poor barn ventilation can make your horse ill, and some illnesses can even lead to death.
Here, we’ll first tell you how your barn’s polluted air can make your horse sick. Then we’ll give you six ways you can improve your horse housing’s air quality in all seasons, whether you’re updating an existing barn or building a new one.
The Air in There
From the rancid smell of ammonia from degrading urine, to the build-up of dusts, molds, and other pathogens from insufficient ventilation, your barn may be the reason for your horse’s respiratory difficulty.
“Poor ventilation can ultimately kill your horse,” notes Brad Cumper, DVM, of Saginaw Valley Equine Clinic in Freeland, Michigan. He explains that the long-term effects of poor ventilation create a wide variety of respiratory disorders, some of which are fatal under the right conditions.
There are three categories of airborne irritants that adversely affect horses: contact irritants; airborne allergens; and infectious agents. Here’s a brief rundown on each one, courtesy of Dr. Crumper.
- Contact irritants aren’t truly harmful by themselves, and invoke a mild inflammatory response without an immune response. They become the trigger for the overproduction of mucus and constrict the lower airways. Once the noxious irritant is removed, airways quickly return to normal function. If irritants persist, the primary defense mechanism is weakened, exposing a vulnerable respiratory tract.
- Airborne allergens — molds, pollens, and proteins derived from plants, such as hay dust — invoke a mild to severe immune response. This may show up as periods of labored breathing, a chronic cough, and severe nasal discharge.
- Infectious agents — bacteria, fungi, and viruses — invoke a severe immune response and can diminish your horse’s ability to defend himself by eroding the airways of his defense mechanisms. If infection overwhelms your horse’s immune system, he may become lethargic, have no appetite, become feverish, and display nasal discharge and/or a cough.
A Healthy Design
Here’s how to clear the air, with design tips from Lorri Hayward of Hayward Designs in Lafayette, Georgia. She’s planned, designed and constructed equestrian facilities of all types and sizes for 20 years.
To increase air circulation in your barn, keep in mind that hot air rises and cool air falls, says Hayward. “When trying to move and remove air, you want to pull fresh cool air in from below and pull hot air out from above.” Here’s how.
- Install ceiling fans. Install ceiling fans over the stalls, over the stall partitions, and down the center aisle. Position the fan blades to pull air up from the stalls.
- Install ventilated cupolas. Vented cupolas are basically air vents in the roof. Ventilated cupolas are equipped with an electric fan that pulls air out of the barn. “Ventilated cupolas cost more money, but in the long run, it’s a critical feature to produce healthy airflow,” says Hayward. Consider investing in a thermostatically controlled cupola that will turn on the fan when your barn reaches a certain temperature.
- Consider an air exchanger. Air exchangers replace stale, polluted air with clean, outside air that’s filtered to remove pollens. The filter also removes moisture from the air, which can carry pollutants, and cause mold and mildew. It truly exchanges the air. “It’s a big expense, but it’s worth it,” says Hayward.
- Vault the roof. If possible, leave open spaces in the pitch of the roof, especially over the stall areas. “You want a volume of air above the horses,” Hayward explains. “Don’t put ceilings over the horses. Instead, put a ceiling over the wash rack or tack stall and have vaulted ceilings over the horses.”
- Install stall vents. Interior stall vents at the bottom of the stall front increase ventilation and air flow at the floor level and within the stalls, where air is typically still. Hayward recommends either grill or mesh on the bottom half of the stall, with a bedding guard on the bottom. If your horse has a turnout door, a full-sized, durable screen door with a bedding guard on the bottom will foster air circulation when inclement weather keeps him inside.
- Install Dutch doors. If direct turnouts aren’t an option, Hayward recommends Dutch doors that open to the outside, to allow outside air in.
Photos by Betsy Lynch