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  • Q:

    We have a remarkable older Warmblood mare who suffers from heaves. We just pulled her a way from all hay and have gone back to alfalfa cubes. They worry me as it seems she will not have enough roughage in her diet. What are you doing in this situation? Can one successfully breed a horse with this condition?

  • A:

    Heaves is the common name for the ailment “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” (COPD). It is caused by a hypersensitivity to fungal spores which are found in bedding, stable and hay. For some horses it may be a sensitivity to summer pasture grass pollen. Many times the very first signs of the disease (decreased performance) go unidentified as COPD.


    Controlling the dust in the horse’s hay can help COPD horses. The best way is to soak the hay in water for 5 minutes before feeding to reduce the fungal spores. Hosing the hay well will have the same effect. This has been found to be more effective at reducing the spores than feeding pelleted or cubed feed. However, the spores in hay cubes can also be reduced by filling the bucket of cubes with water (just enough to cover the cubes) and feeding them to the horse wet.


    Yes, your horse can get enough roughage from hay cubes, provided you feed enough of them. The horse should be getting at least 1% of his body weight in cubes - which for a 1400 lb Warmblood mare is at least 14 lbs of cubes. There are many horses who survive on hay cubes because baled hay is not available. However, you may consider the alfalfa / timothy cubes rather than straight alfalfa if your horse is used to grass hay or you are concerned about the high protein or calcium in alfalfa.


    Another fiber source used commonly in COPD horses is soaked beet pulp. Any concentrate (sweet feed or pellets) can be mixed into the beet pulp just prior to presenting it to the horse in order to cut down on the dust in those feeds.


    For an answer to your question about breeding your mare, I consulted Drs. Kevin Dippert and Vito Del Vento of Equine Reproduction Concepts (Virginia). They explained that the problem with breeding may be totally dependent on the severity of COPD that your horse has. If the disease is well managed with the changes in diet, then there will probably not be any problem. The biggest time of concern for a COPD mare is as she becomes heavy with foal in the last trimester of pregnancy. If she has trouble breathing, the fetus may not receive enough oxygen. Their recommendation is to be sure that the mare is monitored by a veterinarian during this time. The veterinarian can recommend other treatments for the horse if she runs into problems.

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