For a period of time my office was located at an equestrian establishment, just a couple of feet to the right of my desk behind the wall was a stable, and a string of stables beyond that. An ideal location for someone as fanatical and passionate about horses as myself. I thought so also at first, but it quickly became apparent this location was detrimental to my health. The itchy eyes and coughing fits started from day one, although at the time I put it down to being slightly off colour, these things happen.
I also changed from wearing contact lenses to glasses as I thought perhaps staring at the computer screen was straining my eyes, unfortunately the glasses made no difference. Over the next few weeks it occurred to me I was not having the same coughing fits and itchy eyes when at home.
The situation became awkward for me as my boss would come into the office to discuss work, and I would either cough all the way through the meeting, or have to leave to get some fresh air. So that was the second thing that occurred on me, when I left to get some fresh air, the coughing would diminish. I found that over time the periods of having to leave the office were becoming more frequent. It’s really not a good look for an employee to be walking out the office every 30 minutes. I became quite worried that I must appear lazy. Truth is, I just couldn’t breathe.
I’ve been on yards my entire life and not suffered like that, but in hindsight I realise sitting next to a stable is not the same as walking out to paddocks, checking horses, grooming and riding etc because I am moving about in the fresh air, as opposed to breathing in stable air over an entire working day.
So what is in the air?
While researching equine respiratory problems recently for my articles concerning soaking hay and using particular types of bedding, it would appear the air in stables can contain excessive concentrations of airborne dust, moulds, viruses, bacteria, spores, aeroallergens, and endotoxins (Saastamoinen M et al 2015). Rather worryingly, and if anyone thinks it’s ok not to muck out thoroughly, and very frequently, this report also states that the levels of ammonia detected in the morning were high enough to be considered dangerous to both humans and horses.
Would you want to eat in a toilet?
NH3 (ammonia) is extremely irritating to the mucous membranes that line the mouth, eyes and respiratory tract. Breathing in NH3 could cause chronic and acute respiratory disease which is one of the leading causes of wastage in horses used in high performance athletic endeavours and commonly recognized in pleasure horses as well (Hernandez and Hawkins 2001). Concentrations were found to be higher below 2 metres, and highest at ground level, now consider the height of a haynet, manger or even feeding the horse from the floor. Ammonia can rise and dissipate, but not when exposed to moisture and/or humid conditions, the two things stables have an abundance of.
This report also discusses something I have pondered over for a very long time which is, even if you are buying the best bedding money can buy, if your neighbour isn’t, then your efforts could be for nothing. Your horse will still be breathing air that could be considered harmful.
Gunky eyes? Herbal treatments and eye drops wont solve the problem
So what can be done?
There is going to be a level of dust and particles small enough to enter the lungs in hay, haylage, bedding and feed. Also dust in general, look at the filth that gathers on rugs and lines the stable wall. Stable yards would benefit from being kept clean with minimal or no paraphernalia such as liveries belongings, spare rugs, boots etc. Keep it elsewhere such as a tack or rug room. Hanging gear on the stable walls promotes the collection of harmful dust and bacteria. Also buy the best quality feed and bedding that you can afford. Feed could be sprayed with water and hay soaked for one hour in cold water.
Ideally if the environment can be kept clean, then removing urine and droppings immediately could minimise the build-up of harmful toxins. Hosing down the floors and walls daily would also create a far cleaner environment.
Personally I feel equestrians are between a rock and a hard place however.
While rubber matting may have its benefits it’s too heavy and cumbersome to pull out every day to hose off manure. If you have ever flipped over a mat, you will agree its filthy and it stinks, well that stink is what your horse is breathing in. In my experience shavings absorb urine more efficiently than straw, with straw it tends to spread across the floor surface, rather than being contained in one area. Yet both straw and shavings contain dust. What we need is better bedding and mat options. But all this sounds time consuming and expensive? Yes but perhaps it should be if it benefits the health of our horses.
Maybe I am asking the impossible. But the best course of action in my view to guarantee your horse is not breathing air which has the potential to damage its health is to limit the amount of time it spends in a stable.
Looking back I feel positive about working in such close proximity to stables, this was a walled office also, yet the level of airborne particles and ammonia were still enough to irritate my lungs and eyes. Quite literally coughing my guts up gave me a good level of understanding in how horses must feel.
I was able to remove myself from the situation, horses cannot.
Saastamoinen M, Särkijärvi S, Hyyppä S (2015) Reducing Respiratory Health Risks to Horses and Workers: A Comparison of Two Stall Bedding Materials. The National Center for Biotechnology Information, Animals (Basel). 2015 Dec; 5(4): 965–977 [ONLINE] Available at:
(Accessed 3rd October 2017)
Hernandez J, D.L. Hawkins (2001) Race-start characteristics and risk of catastrophic musculoskeletal injury in Thoroughbred racehorses. J. Am. Vet. Med. Ass. 218:83-86 [ONLINE] Available at:
(Accessed 5th October 2017)
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