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The Thirsty Zebra

Appreciating the harmony of  life...from the saddle


Positive.  Productive.  Progressive.

Why Does My Horse Cough at the Beginning of Each Ride?

By Susan

I usually start my ride routine with some suppling exercises, flex left, right and vertical. Then I will walk a couple of times around the arena or pasture perimeter, working on stops, turns and backups without reins. Then I move on to walk trot transitions and then some long trotting. By this time, Bonus, my 10 year old Thoroughbred gelding is going well and listening to me.

As soon as I start to canter, he will cough two or three times, regardless of the weather or surroundings. He then settles in to our ride with no further signs of respiratory troubles, until the next time I saddle up and move into the canter.

I’ve gotten used to this routine, but each time wonder, “Is this something I should be worrying about?” My daughter is an Equine Veterinarian and when I asked her about it, she told me that if Bonus shows no other signs of illness and has no difficulty breathing as he works, this “warm-up” cough is just a natural reaction to the initiation of exercise.

The technical explanation of a cough is this: when receptors in the pharynx and trachea are irritated by pollen, dust or even just fresh air, those receptors cause the following to happen: 1)The horse inhales and the larynx closes, locking air in the respiratory tract. 2) The muscles in the abdomen contract, air pressure increases in the lungs, the larynx reopens and the air rushes out, carrying any irritants with it. That rush of expelled air is the sound you hear.

Warm-up coughs often occur when excess mucus accumulates behind the larynx. Hairlike structures called cilia that line the esophagus continuously move mucus upward, but once it reaches the larynx, it has no place to go. When a horse begins to exercise, he breathes more deeply, so he may cough to clear mucus from his airways. Some horses naturally produce more mucus than others, so for them, a cough or two at the beginning of a ride is just normal.

Even if this is your horse’s regular routine, don’t stop listening for subtle changes in his cough. Unusual or prolonged coughing can be a sign of respiratory illness, and if his normal hacks grow louder or more frequent, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian about it.


If you have a problem or concern with your horse, leave a comment below and I’ll “Ask My Vet” for you, it is so handy to have a Horse Doctor in the family

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