Heaves in Horses

Recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), aka heaves, is an allergic and inflammatory lung disease in horses.  It’s similar to human asthma. Many people may not think of heaves as being all that dangerous, but my first barrel racing horse, Dee, died due to complications from heaves.  It was an awful experience I’ll never forget.  I now know that heaves is sometimes preventable and often manageable and I would do things a lot differently today.

Heaves seems to be more common in stabled horses, where inhalation of dust particles which contain allergens, mold, or endotoxins is more likely.  Researchers also now believe there is a genetic component to heaves, allowing some horses to develop the disease more easily.

horse nose

When a horse that is predisposed to heaves breathes in dust particles, it triggers bronchospasm (narrowing of airways).  The walls of the horse’s airway become inflamed, mucous develops, and the horse has difficulty breathing.   Each episode of heaves leads to more thickening of airway walls, making it more difficult for the horse to cope.

Some symptoms of mild heaves in horses include:

  • exercise-related coughing
  • coughing while eating or while barn is swept
  • reduced exercise tolerance

If mild heaves is not properly managed, it can lead to more severe symptoms, such as:

  • respiratory distress
  • exercise intolerance
  • ‘heave’ lines
  • wheezing
  • weight loss

The good news is that mild heaves can be managed so it doesn’t became severe.  The key is avoiding dust particles that can trigger bouts of heaves.  Keeping the horse in a pasture is best, but if that’s not possible, make sure that stabled horses with heaves are kept in a barn that is well-ventilated and as dust-free as possible.  Changing to a stall bedding such as chopped paper or cardboard will most likely be necessary.  You will want to remove the horse from the barn when you are bringing in loads of hay or sweeping the floors as well.

The diet of a horse with heaves will need to be altered as well.  Feeding a pelleted feed (soaked, if possible), soaked beet pulp, or whole grains is better than rolled grains, which can be dusty.  If possible, replace hay with soaked hay cubes or pellets.  If that’s not an option, soak the hay before feeding.  It’s important not to let horses with heaves eat from a round bale (this was our mistake with Dee) because they will bury their head in the bale and dust-inhalation will be inevitable.

Traditional treatments for heaves include corticosteroids and bronchodilators (for acute attacks), but there are some alternative and natural treatments for heaves as well.  Some supplements you may want to look into for a horse with heaves include:

Some other treatments for heaves include:

For more related information–see an article I wrote a couple of years ago that goes into greater detail on management and alternative treatments for horses with heaves.

If you suspect heaves in your horse, always see your vet first.  Heaves is irreversible, but it can be managed so the horse can live a comfortable (and often useful) life.





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

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22 Responses

  1. Lorrie says:

    Well I seem to disagree with the dust particles, I know horse breeding farms with barns full of weeds and dust, and having horses in their breeding program for over 20 years with no heaves. I mean dust barns and hay and no heaves.
    I have found that the Rhino vaccine given during the pregnancy stage seems to trigger the onset of depleted histamine molecules, more in my book
    Natural Equine Remedies .
    Natural remedies are ester C , and Dr.Christophers Respri Free herbs as well as a natural diet.

    • then5925 says:

      Hi Lorrie,
      I believe it’s the mold spores and other irritants within the dust particles that are thought to trigger heaves–and some horses seem to be more susceptible than others. I would definitely agree that heaves or any allergic response is linked with a lowered immune system though–and that good nutrition and herbs can definitely help in this area.

  2. Rosemary Snyder says:

    I have a mini horse who was diagnosed 3 years ago with heaves. If I use magnesium, vitamins C/E and Jiaogulan, would I use them all together or can I use one or the other/how much would I give him? He is around 450 to 500lbs. I have a dirt floor with saw dust, but am putting in a thick rubber mat/ am hoping it helps cut down on his heaves. His name is Briquet. Thanks so much for any information you can give me.

  3. Rosemary Snyder says:

    I also have been giving him a product with probiotics in it, but this year it doesn’t seem to be helping him. He also has Founder/ is 13 years old.

    • then5925 says:

      Hi Rosemary,

      I am not a nutritionist or vet, but I have supplemented all of these at one time or another (except vitamin C) and wouldn’t have a problem giving them all at once. Here is an article that outlines vitamin requirements for horses: http://www.ker.com/library/advances/238.pdf

      For full size horses, 2,000 mg of j-herb & 20 grams of spirulina has been found to be helpful for respiratory issues (per Dr. Kellon), so probably half that amount would be appropriate for your little guy. Dr. Kellon has a book, Horse Journal: Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals, that I’ve found really helpful as well.

      For the magnesium, it would really depend on how much he’s getting in his diet (would have to test your hay), but adding about three grams probably wouldn’t hurt. Magnesium is also helpful for laminitic-prone horses.

      Are you soaking his hay? This is important for dust-control.


  4. susan says:

    I have a 21 year old gelding who haves heaves , I think it was caused by the silt in our paddock and the dust flying through the area on real dry days plus them running and the dust was horrible. looking for now a new footing in the paddock to cut the dust.
    In the winter and spring it’s not so bad but our dry summers are dangerous to my horse now. I have slowfeeder nets, I soak his hay twice a day , with wintercoming I am wondering how my soaking his hay with be cold on the hand. here is my idea I will buy a big metal garbage can then put a heater they use to warm there buckets and put my hay bag and lets it soak.

    • Casie says:

      Hi Susan,

      I’m sorry to say I don’t know of any easy ways to soak hay in the cold. Luckily, I haven’t had to do this. If I did, I would probably use a heated bucket (this is what i use for water in the winter anyways). There are also hay steamers, but they are pricey. Good luck to you!

  5. susan holmes says:

    I started my horse on a product called heave ho along with vitamin e vitamin . heave ho does have spirulina in the formula

    • Casie says:

      Hi Susan–thanks for sharing. Keep us posted on how it works!

    • Sandy says:

      Hey Susan I was reading about your horse, I put my 13year old horse Thunder on these back late last fall after I had tried steriods and antibotics repeadly. He has improved since I started him on it. I keep him on it thru the fall and winter then in the summer when he breaths better I just give him the vit E.
      I have seen a big difference I hope it helps someone that has a horse with the heaves that’s the only reason I am replying, I have seen first hand how bad they suffer when they have this horrible diease, allergies or whatever you want to call it.
      Stay with it, it will help your horse it won’t cure him but it will ease his breathing tremendously.
      For anyone who has a horse with these symptoms, I would highly recommend putting their horse on it.
      I also feed him beet pulp shredded w/molasses, mixed in his 16% feed along with a small amount of calf manna for nutrition.
      anyone who wants to get heave ho and vit E can get it at http://www.equinemedsurg.com just in case anyone needs to help their horses with breathing problems.

  6. Susan holmes says:

    I did try the heave ho and there was no marked improvement very sad to say so I put him on Spurlina wafers hoping it helps , he eats them in his grain and don’t seem to mind them . I have read a lot about spurlina and it sound good and there is another herb mentioned here and gonna read more before I decide on it.

  7. Diane says:

    I have the same environment for 8 horses but only one horse who is heave-ey. She is also quite anxious. She came to me with a huge sarcoids that were labelled “squamous cell carcinoma” by a Vet from Cornell, and was told she was terminal. I reversed it by praying hard and taking her off grain and eventually using toothpaste on them. It’s a much longer story but I’ll spare you. She came from a rodeo boarding facility where she was kept indoors most of the time. Here, she’s out most of the time. She is allergic to spring pollens and fall mold. What are your thoughts in tying her issues to weak adrenals (from being confined) and poor gut flora? I tend to think that treating these together are important in the whole picture. Her soy allergy points me toward gut flora, her anxiety toward adrenal insufficiency. The adrenals being responsible for managing inflammation make me think I could support the the gut and the adrenals with herbs and get better results going forward. What do you think?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Diane, I would say her immune system is definitely compromised and starting with a really good probiotic would be wise. Also feeding some supplements to boost immune function such as spirulina and possibly some adaptogenic herbs. You might consider having some acupuncture or acupressure done, too. Dr. Thomas at http://www.forloveofthehorse.com also makes a Chinese herbal blend for heaves which I hear is quite effective (just kind of pricey!)

  8. Alicia says:

    I have a 19 year old gelding that I recently found out suffers from heaves. He has had a mild cough for years now that has never worsened until this spring. Previous vets had told me not to worry about it so I didn’t. After mentioning to a new vet he checked him out and he does suffer from COPD. He is an extremely competitive barrel horse or at least was up until this spring and I’m afraid his cough is worsening and his performance is being affected. I have him on Spec-tuss and have been soaking his hay which is quality second cutting. He has also been getting jiogulan supplement for years and I have recently started a pro bios. With all of this he has improved but is still not drastically better. I am considering replacing his hay with Lucerne Farms chopped forage and/or hay pellets or cubes. Has anyone had any luck doing this or am I spending a lot of money switching his diet for no reason. Any input would appreciated. If he does not improve he will unfortunately most likely have to retire as I do not want to push him. Thanks!

  9. Linda Holder says:

    I have a mare with heeves , reading everyone’s comments has been helpful but, she also has other problems wondering that maybe someone here has run into this , I will try to explain as best I can .She has always had problems with bloat , I took her to a teaching vet school wear they did exploratory surgery , sure enough she had a very enlarge ovary ,A large hematoma over the top of the ovary, so they went in to get both and to take a look around at her colon . Everything check out fine we were worried that she may have had some kinda twist or something wrong with her gut Nope ,pink healthy, fine but it hasn’t helped with her bloat , she still looks like she is ready to have 3 babies we have a slow fed hay net I have done everything I can think of or read about and still nothing .Now she has heeves I’m lost as what to do for her

  1. January 30, 2013

    […] Post navigation ← Previous […]

  2. May 10, 2013

    […] Heaves: bilateral, mucoid discharge, accompanied by cough, and increased respiratory rate; […]

  3. August 9, 2013

    […] often hear of the practice of hay soaking for horses with heaves (to reduce dust particles), but did you know that hay soaking is often beneficial for horses […]

  4. August 13, 2013

    […] 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; […]

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