The horse’s breath

As you will all know, breathing is essential for both humans and horses. But there are some differences between the two ways of breathing. In this article we’ll tell you more about how the horse’s respiratory system works. 


The respiratory system begins at the upper airways. The airways start at the nasal cavity and run through the pharynx, larynx and trachea to the lungs. Unlike humans, the horse can only breathe through their nose. It is therefore important that the horse always has one nostril free to breathe. The surface of a horse’s lungs is very large, about 1600m2 in an adult horse! 


There are two types of breath: chest breathing and abdominal breathing. In chest breathing, the ribs and sternum move, enlarging or contracting the chest cavity. In abdominal breathing, the diaphragm moves. The diaphragm is a muscular membrane that separates the thoracic and abdominal cavities. By rounding or flattening the diaphragm, air is inhaled and exhaled. In rest, the horse breathes 8 to 14 times per minute. During exercise, this frequency can increase considerably, up to about 130 breaths per minute. In a well-trained horse, breathing should return to the resting rate within half an hour after work. 


When you measure the horse’s breathing, you can count the number of breaths per minute, this is the respiratory rate. Breathing in and out counts as one breath. Normal breathing is a combination of chest and abdominal breathing. If the horse mainly uses chest breathing, you will see most movement in the chest. This could be a sign that the horse has abdominal pain, for example. If the horse mainly uses abdominal breathing, you will see most movement in the abdomen. Chest pain or difficulty breathing can be the cause of this. The horse may also show a shallow breathing, when the respiratory rate is high and the breaths are short. When taking your horse’s respiratory rate, make sure you stand at a safe distance behind the horse. You can judge the horse’s breath by the movement of their ribs and flanks. Normally, breath is measured for 15 seconds and the count is multiplied by 4 to get the rate per minute. If the horse is breathing irregularly, it is better to measure for a whole minute. 


If breathing is abnormal, or you suspect other respiratory problems, call your vet. 

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