My horse was just diagnosed with COPD, he was in quite a state when the vet came out. I have spent hours and hours educating myself on the topic as this is one I do not have experience with. While I understand the condition can be managed and dealt with my concern is more of a humane one. I have my horse to enjoy and ride. While he is feeling better is it humane to ride him? He can’t tell me how he’s feeling and the thought of him not being able to breath breaks my heart and I can’t stand the thought of making him do something he’s not able. I am doing everything possible to keep him happy but is it fair? I know this is partially a personal question but in all the reading I have done there is no mention of exercise or what physically is good for horses with COPD.
COPD is a gradually progressive respiratory condition that occurs when exposure to environmental irritants and allergens triggers inflammation in the lungs, causing thickening of the air passages and increased mucus secretions. Over time, oxygen exchange gets less efficient and the horse has to make an increased effort to breathe because of the excess mucus and loss of airway elasticity. Some horses are more susceptible to this condition and acute attacks of wheezing and coughing can be triggered by exposure to an allergen that they are particularly sensitive to. It sounds like this is what happened with your guy.
While we cannot reverse or cure the effects of COPD, the good news is that we can significantly help horses suffering this condition through environmental management and judicious medication. There are several COPD Q&A files on our “Ask The Vet” archive that cover various current treatment and management strategies.
Although COPD is a chronic condition, the good news is that a horse can usually continue to enjoy their regular activities once the acute attack has resolved and an appropriate management plan has been instituted. As long as those small airways are protected from irritation, mild to moderately affected horses generally perform quite comfortably. One of my own COPD affected horses was still able to compete at the advanced level in three day eventing once we had successfully identified and controlled his triggers and the associated inflammation. In his case we gave him as much turnout as possible, changed to dust-free bedding, provided soaked hay and hay cubes, and treated him with inhaled medication which directly treats the irritated airways with a relatively tiny dose of drug.
The best plan for you is to talk to your vet about the stable management and medication strategy that best suits his environment and routine. Once he’s past the acute event, start riding again and monitor his performance carefully. Signs that he’s not coping well would include increased recovery time after exertion, coughing, lack of desire to go forward, and increased respiratory effort with flaring nostrils. You will probably find he has great days and some off days, usually when the heat or environmental conditions hit extremes. But please don’t think it is cruel to continue enjoying your time together on the trail or schooling ring. It’s overall much healthier for a horse to have some exercise and it should not trouble him as long as you have adequately addressed the underlying condition.