Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown all bundled up

When Charlie moved the barn to live with us, he had a little cough.  It seemed to be a result of trotting and kicking up dust in the area where he was ridden.  It wasn’t terrible.  But no one wants a coughing horse.

When he got to our barn, it didn’t go away.  It continued whether we rode inside or out.  As fall turned to winter, it seemed to get worse.  Maybe.  Sort of.  I wasn’t sure if it was actually getting worse, or if it was my imagination.  So in true new-horse-mom fashion, we called the vet.

Between the information we got from our vet, and additional research I did on my own, I found out there are three simple things, short of medication, that could be done to make it better:

  • Get Out!

As in “outside.” Our barn has two types of stalls: those inside the barn, and a handful of outdoor stalls.  Charlie was living inside.  That’s great for winter temperatures.  When the barn is closed up, it’s a good 10°F warmer inside.  That means the water pipes don’t burst, so the automatic waterers continue to provide fresh drinking water.

But it’s extremely dusty because of the hayloft above.  Every time flakes were thrown down into each horse’s stall, the process kicked up copious amounts of dust.  And that wreaked havoc on Charlie’s cough.

So option one was to move from the indoor barn to an outside stall.  Fortunately, there were some transitions going on, and an outdoor stall became available, and Charlie moved.  Now, he’s in the middle of about ten other horses.  He really seems to enjoy it.  He talks to the other horses.  He hangs his head over the stall door and sunbathes.  And he seems to smile when no one is looking.

  •  Get Wet

We’re talking about the hay here. It’s notoriously dusty.  So how do you handle it?  By wetting it.  There are two way to do that: by steaming or by soaking.

Soaking hay is simple enough.  You get a big bucket of water, put your hay in it, leave it there for a while, then drain out the water, and feed it to your horse.  During the summer months, that’s not so terrible, because it feels good to put your hands into cool water.  But during the cold winter months, the freezing water is tough on your hands.  Even if you put the hay in hot water, it’s typically cold by the time you take it out.  And if anything gets left in a bucket overnight, and temperatures fall below freezing, then you’re stuck with hay locked in a block of ice.

If you have a horse with Cushings, or other insulin resistance conditions, soaking is preferable because when you pour the water off, you remove some of the starch, reducing the carbohydrate content.  But it also removes some of the other desirable nutrients.

Steaming, on the other hand, removes the dust without degrading the nutritional value of the hay.  It also doesn’t change the sugar or starch content either.  But to steam your hay you need a large contraption that heats the water and injects steam into the middle of your bale.  It looks like something out of a bad horror movie.  The full-bale size is about the size of a very large tack trunk.  When you open it, there are big metal spikes running the length of the interior.  Steamers come in half-bale and full-bale sizes.  They aren’t cheap, or light.  So if you order one, be sure to have to delivered directly to your barn.

Since Charlie eats an entire bale of hay each day, we opted for a full bale steamer.  It arrived at our barn by FedEx Freight, and we only had to move it about 30 yards to get it where it needed to be.  It’s still a lot bigger than anticipated.  But at least we can get an entire day’s worth of hay done in one batch.

  • Get Up

The last non-medical action to take against a cough is to get the hay up off the ground, and feed from a hanging feeder. The idea is that by keeping the hay out of the bedding, and off the ground, that it keeps the dust down.  There is some disagreement about this particular tactic because some believe very strongly that horses need to stretch their necks down, like the position they would be in when the graze, when they feed on forage.  If a hay feeder is used purely for decorative purposes, I tend to agree.  But in this case, we were solving a health problem.

We bought a corner model, which didn’t fit the stall, so we returned it for a straight one.  If you choose to use a hanging feeder, be sure to hang it high enough that your horse can’t get a foot in it by accident.  Remember, too, to update your horse’s stall card to alert the staff that this hay is handled differently.

If you haven’t dealt with steamed hay, it has a unique smell — rather like oatmeal, or warm pipe tobacco, or some say, prunes or roasted pecans (perhaps that was wishful thinking).  Either way, I think it smells rather nice.  And carrying several flakes of steamed hay on a cold winter day is a great hand warmer.

We started here, and implemented each tactic, one at a time, to see what kind of results we got.  We figured if this didn’t work well enough, or even at all, then we could go back and bring in the medical options to address the problem.  With each change, we gave it a couple of weeks to see if there was any difference in Charlie’s cough.  By separating the implementation of each tactic, we could tell whether it was that specific action that caused the improvement or not.  And there was change — for the better — from each of these techniques.  The biggest response was from the move.

And I’m happy to report that after these three simple changes, Charlie isn’t coughing anymore.  At all.

Not one little bit!