Causes of Coughing in Horses

You’re in the barn or pasture doing chores or maybe you’re even riding when you hear the unmistakable sound of your horse coughing.  This scenario is all too common, but if you’re like me, you wonder, what’s causing my horse to cough?


girl riding


Coughing in horses (and us) is the body’s way of removing foreign material or mucous from the lungs or upper airway passages.  Coughing can also occur as a reaction to irritants or even cold air in the respiratory tract as well.

The causes of coughing in horses are varied and while some coughs are completely harmless, others signal that something more serious is going on.  So how do you know what’s to blame for your horse’s cough?  First of all, you need to take the whole horse into consideration.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How long has the cough been present?
  2. How frequent is the cough?
  3. Does the horse have nasal discharge or abnormal breathing?
  4. Does the horse have a fever?
  5. Is the cough worsened by exercise?
  6. Is your horse lethargic or ill in any other way?
  7. Does the horse only seem to cough under certain conditions (when eating, etc.)

After determining the answers to the questions above, you can then get a better idea of what may be going on and whether or not veterinary intervention is needed.

Here are some common causes of coughing and the identifying factors in horses:

  • Viral Infection: Frequent dry cough often accompanied by watery nasal discharge, fever, lethargy, and/or loss of appetite;
  • Bacterial Infection: Intermittent wet cough often accompanied by noticeable, thick nasal discharge, fever, loss of appetite, and/or lethargy.  May have enlarged lymph nodes under jaw (strangles);
  • Inflammatory Airway Disease: Chronic, intermittent cough occurring more commonly seen in younger and sometimes middle-aged horses (especially race horses).  May be accompanied by nasal discharge.  Horse will likely exhibit decreased performance;
  • Recurrent Airway Obstruction (Heaves)Chronic wet cough which is often more noticeable when eating, in the barn, or when being exercised.  Horse will likely have increased respiration and flared nostrils as well.  More common in middle-aged and older horses.  Coughing may be less apparent when horse is on pasture;
  • “Warm-Up” Cough: Horse appears healthy, but coughs when being warmed up.   After initial coughing, horse is fine.  (Likely caused be mucous accumulation);
  • Dust-Induced (Arena Cough): More common in the winter.  Horse coughs initially when being ridden in an arena and then appears fine.  Horse is otherwise healthy;
  • Cold Weather-Induced: Usually occurs when horse is being exercised in cold weather.  After initial coughing, horse is fine;
  • Foreign Object: (not choke) Odd, non-resolving cough.  Horse may hold head or neck in strange position.  The object lodged in the larynx or farther down may be dislodged with coughing, but veterinary intervention may be necessary;
  • Lungworms: (not common, but I wanted to include this) Intermittent coughing worsened by exercise. More common in donkeys or horses pastured with donkeys.


If your horse has fever, lethargy, or any other symptoms of an illness, obviously, a call to your vet is a good idea.  Viral infections tend to clear up on their own with some TLC, but bacterial infections will likely need treatment.

If your horse has nasal discharge, check out this related post on Identifying Types of Nasal Discharge in Horses.




How Bad is Your Horse’s Cough?

Respiratory Problems

What about Lungworms?



Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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21 Responses

  1. My horse only at night when at rest

  2. faith says:

    Thanks for the is good to know all of that.

  3. jake benton says:

    Is there a way to help the cough go away if its just mucous?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Jake,

      It depends on what the cough is caused from, but there are several natural remedies and homeopathic treatments that could likely help.

  4. Sharn says:

    Have a mare that acts like she is in choke everytime she eats. Hoping it is not guttural pouches

    • Casie says:

      Hi Sharn, That’s not good. Does she just do it eating concentrates or eating forage as well? Have you had her teeth and mouth checked?

  5. kenzie hopper says:

    My mare coughs while exercising especially after sitting and in arena or dusty. No other symptoms. Is there anything that can help her?

  6. Frank G. SR. says:

    One of our two Arabians (Mother to the other) started coughing in the last 2 days. She’s about 14 and were both rescues. She’s getting on in years and i’m worried . This last week temps have dropped to 60’s at night can this be the reason?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Frank-It’s hard to know what’s causing the cough. Could be the cooler weather or possibly something else. The best bet is to watch and see. If she gets worse or if other symptoms arise, I wouldn’t hesitate to get her looked at by a vet. If it turns out to be allergy related, there are some herbal remedies that might help.

  7. David Green says:

    My horse is 18 years old he’s in the pasture has developed a dry cough very persistent no discharge from the nose no fever
    I believe it probably is COPD what can I do for him

  8. john booker says:

    my 2yo racehorse has developed a dry cough usually when working drops his head and coughs , will penecilin help

  9. Kati says:

    Hi my horse Levi is 17 came to my home 1 month ago he came from a home where he has never been in a barn and has only ate corn and musty round bails of hay.Ever since he came he had a dry like cough. I don’t know what to do.

    • Casie says:

      Hi Kati, Given your horse’s age and the fact that he ate from musty round bales, he could have Heaves (Recurrent Airway Obstruction). You might check out this post to see if the symptoms match as well as for some treatment options:

      Of course, I can’t diagnose any type of illness, so getting a vet involved is a good idea as well. Good luck!

  10. Kimbery says:

    I have a 18 yr old mare that i got 6 months ago. Everytime i ride her she starts coughing at the walk! Today when i was riding her and she started coughing i noticed a sound coming from her breathing between coughs almost like a roar but very light then it stopped. She also has headshaking syndrome and today it was extremely bad i had to stop riding her. The cough is only when i am riding her in an arena that i have noticed
    She is a retired endurance horse because of the head shaking. No nasal discharge. She eats well and is otherwise healthy.

  11. Tracy says:

    I adopted a rescue horse who was underweight and came down with strangles.its been about 5 weeks and the strangles has cleared up but he had a cough when he’s eating his alfalfa. Could this be from the strangles?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Tracy, I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to this. Coughs can linger for a while (in people too), so it’s possible that it’s from Strangles, or it could be something entirely different. Middle aged and older horses are more prone to COPD as well. Does he have any nasal discharge?

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