Everything you need to know about your horse’s respiratory system

ademhalingsstelsel van het paard

The respiratory system is a large and vital part of a horse. To be exact, the lung capacity of a horse is as much as fifty liters. Compare that to the seven liters of humans, and you immediately understand why it is important to fully support your horse’s breathing system. In this blog you will receive information about the anatomy of the respiratory system in horses, how to recognize normal or abnormal breathing and discover ways to support your horse’s respiratory system.


The anatomy of the equine respiratory system

How do horses breathe? The answer seems obvious, but horses do not breathe in the same way as humans. In the image below, you can see exactly how your horse’s respiratory system works.

The airways of horses can be divided into two groups:

  1. The upper respiratory tract (nasal passages, throat, trachea, and larynx)
  2. The lower respiratory tract (bronchioles, bronchi, and alveoli in the lungs)

Respiratory system of horse

A horse breathes oxygen-containing air through the nostrils. Through the nasal passages, throat and trachea (upper respiratory tract), this air enters the lungs. Next, the air travels through the large bronchi to the small bronchi and bronchioles (lower respiratory tract). Bronchioles are small hollow tubes held open by muscles that flow into the alveoli. Here, gas exchange takes place: oxygen enters the body and carbon dioxide leaves the body.

Because the lungs are filled with air, the lung tissue is naturally elastic so that exhalation can occur without any effort. Finally, the horse’s airways are equipped with cilia cells and mucus-producing gland cells. Together they ensure healthy and clean lungs. The mucus absorbs incoming dust or pathogens and the cilia works them back out.


How do you notice respiratory problems in your horse?

Unfortunately, respiratory problems in horses are common. We see this especially in sport horses because they come into contact with other horses more often and the immune system can be lowered by prolonged transport and stressful situations. For sport horses, it is therefore recommended to administer Global Medics Immunotop in periods of reduced resistance.

The sooner you notice a respiratory problem, the easier the healing process will be. Therefore, it is important to contact your veterinarian immediately in case of the following symptoms:

  • Coughing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nasal discharge.
  • Decreased stamina.
  • Reduced performance.
  • Faster breathing.
  • Fever.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.

Your veterinarian will probably perform a clinical examination first. Here, the focus is on observing your horse, feeling some structures (such as the throat and lymph nodes) and auscultating. This is a procedure in which your veterinarian can use a stethoscope to notice certain sounds in the body. Depending on the findings during the clinical examination, your veterinarian will or will not recommend further treatment or investigation. 


What can I expect after the clinical examination?

After performing the clinical examination, your veterinarian will already suspect a certain condition. To rule out other causes, it is sometimes necessary to perform further examinations. One of the first additional examinations your veterinarian will perform is an endoscopy.

In an endoscopy, the veterinarian looks at your horse’s airways through the nose with a small camera and a light source. In this way, the respiratory system with its different structures can be examined in greater detail.

Depending on the results of the endoscopy, an additional examination may be necessary. This is of course strongly dependent on the complications of the horse.


What can you do yourself to support the respiratory system of your horse?

Fortunately, to support your horse as good as possible when it comes to lung problems or to prevent them, you can already take several precautions:

  • Moisten the hay to minimize the release of dust.
  • Make sure the stable is clean in order to prevent an ammonia smell.
  • Provide good ventilation and avoid drafts.
  • Choose a less dusty stable bedding such as flax and wood shavings. 
  • Regularly spray the riding arena with water to reduce dust clouds.

Although the above measures greatly reduce the risk of respiratory problems, it is recommended that in coughing horses, wheezing horses or horses that are very sensitive to dust, the respiratory system is already supported with Global Medics Respitop.

Global Medics Respitop was specially developed with high quality herbs to support a healthy and clean respiratory system. We have also added glycerol and honey because this has a soothing effect on the throat. Finally, Global Medics Respitop contains propolis, which has a natural antibacterial effect. 


Some interesting facts about the respiration of horses

  • Horses can only breathe through their nose. So a noseband that is too low can restrict breathing.
  • The position of the head and neck affects the ability to breathe. 
  • The breathing rate of horses at rest is 8 to 14 times per minute. Here, an inhalation and exhalation counts as one breath. You can easily count this yourself by standing diagonally behind your horse and looking at the expansion and contraction of the sides.
  • The left lung is smaller than the right lung due to the location of the heart. 
  • In canter, a synchronization of breathing and stride frequency takes place. Thanks to the diaphragm, the abdominal contents can shift so that in canter the horse breathes in and out once at each jump. 
  • During the flight phase of jumping, a horse holds his breath. Only at the moment of landing does he breathe out again.


More information?

Not sure if your horse’s respiratory system needs support? Or maybe you have questions after reading this blog? If so, please feel free to contact us. We at Global Medics are always available to provide advice.



*If your horse is breathing heavily, making a wheezing noise, or coughing, it is best to discuss this with your veterinarian immediately. Many complications are easily cured in the early stages.