The Horse, Sweet PDZ Stall Freshener Team for Air Quality Awareness Week

Find resources about air quality and equine respiratory health during the week of April 29 on
Horse in Dusty Barn

Poor air quality isn’t just a concern for human respiratory health. In fact, our horse’s respiratory systems are especially sensitive air contaminant exposure. That barn ammonia, arena dust, wildfire smoke, airborne allergens, and smog pose long-term threats to equine health. Exposure is a welfare issue and can lead to poor performance and even chronic equine asthma. To help bring awareness to the importance of healthy air quality for our horses, we at The Horse have partnered with Sweet PDZ Stall Freshener for Air Quality Awareness Week. We’ll be posting articles the week of April 29, 2019, to help educate horse owners about equine respiratory health.


Mare Gestation Calculator

Are you wondering when your pregnant mare will foal? Use our Mare Gestation Calculator to find out! The average gestation length in the mare ranges from 320 to 362 days; most mares will foal within 330-345 days of successful breeding. However, mares have successfully foaled with gestation lengths outside this range.

Please Note: The Mare Gestation Calculator is intended for use only as a foaling date estimation tool for horses. It does not consider differences between individual mares. is not responsible for problems or injuries arising from the use/misuse of this tool or for any inaccuracy in the foaling date estimate of an individual horse.

What date was the mare bred?


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Estimated foaling date:

Select a breeding date in the calendar to see the estimated foaling date range.

  • This calculator gives a gestation range of 331-346 days from breeding (adding a day for ovulation to a 330- to 345-day range).
  • Individual mares tend to have their own gestation length tendencies.
  • Ponies, on average, tend to have shorter gestation periods than full-size horses.
  • This calculator is not intended for gestation estimation in donkeys or other equids—only horses.

How to Teach Your Horse to Behave in Cross-Ties

Does your horse refuse to stand still in the cross-ties? An equine behavior expert shares how to instill good grooming manners in a young horse or curb existing rude behavior in the cross-ties.


Q. How do I get my horse to be polite in the cross-ties, be it starting young to instill good ground manners or curbing existing rude behavior?

Carolyn Arnold, Colorado

A. When introducing a young horse to cross-ties, I like to try to have a calm companion nearby whenever possible—preferably tethered or cross-tied, as well. This is what behaviorists often call a “helper companion.” I find it best to have the helper settled in and comfortable before bringing the young horse to the cross-ties.

Personally, I find well-timed small food treats to mark and reinforce desirable behavior very effective in training horses for these routine management tasks. As soon as I see the first sign of relaxation in the trainee, I say “good” and offer a treat from a small pan, reaching under the neck to the off-side. (Delivering the treat in this manner results in the horse turning away from rather than toward you when anticipating a treat. This helps avoid reinforcing nudgy “asking” gestures or nips.)

For many young horses, scratching at the withers is an effective substitute for food treats as a primary reinforcer, either intermittently or entirely.

Then I proceed by starting to do something with the horse, such as brushing or currying. Should any undesirable responses occur, I find it most effective to simply ignore them and continue with whatever I was doing to the extent safe. Ignore means no verbal response, no tension on your part. It can help to organize the situation to make the undesirable behavior, should it occur, the least annoying to you and anyone else in the space. So, for pawing, I like to have a ½- to ¾-inch-thick rubber stall mat covering the floor. That way, the pawing is least annoying to me and probably least self-reinforcing to the horse. Similarly, I like to have stout cotton ties with fittings that are quiet so any wiggliness makes less noise.

It is always helpful to start with a procedure such as grooming that:

  1. I know the young horse seems to enjoy in other settings, and
  2. I will be most able to keep doing through any anticipated wiggliness.

As soon as the horse demonstrates a pause in undesirable behavior, I again say “good” and reinforce the relaxation with the food treat or scratching. Clicker trainers often use a clicker or audible sound, instead of a word. The point is to have a standard marker that tells the horse, “Yes, that’s what will lead to a treat.”

As you go, the objective is to wait for longer periods of relaxation before reinforcing and only intermittently deliver the primary reinforcement (food or scratching), while using the secondary reinforcement (the “good” or the clicker) more liberally. One of the valuable skills some people have naturally, but usually develop or hone with experience, is the intuition to instantly adjust their pace of reinforcement “to effect” in any given situation. The goal, of course, is to hold off on reinforcement just long enough to keep increasing the target behavior (called shaping) of standing calmly, without accidentally inciting counterproductive frustration, confusion, or ­overexcitement.

For young horses that start out, as most do, with the tendency to pull back or lunge forward, I find it effective to drop back to a more gradual introduction to cross-ties. I have a handler hold the horse from the left side with a usual cotton lead while I groom. I often also ask the handler to perform the reinforcement and robotically deliver the treats or scratches whenever I say “good.” Once the horse stands well for long periods with that arrangement, I try attaching the far-side cross-tie, with a handler again standing at the shoulder and holding the lead on the near side. Next, I may attach the offside and do a sliding tether on the near side. My objective is to avoid any wrecks by gauging the horse’s animation and adjusting the tension on that lead, as the handler would have done, balancing teaching the horse to be stationary with avoiding a punishing, scary event on the cross-ties.

Horses are great spokesmodels for teaching behavior modification, ­particularly shaping relaxation in these positive-reinforcement-based operant-conditioning scenarios, where we ignore undesirable behavior and focus on recognizing and reinforcing gradual increments of desirable behavior. They are exceptionally quick at associating their behavior with positive outcomes. Some are so quick at making associations and patterns of our behavior, they appear to learn that with each successive replication, they must relax for a longer period before you offer the reinforcement. At some point they start to relax in general and anticipate reinforcement from actions that imply imminent treat delivery—such as you reaching for the treat delivery bowl. Eventually, they relax entirely, and you can end by delivering one “thank-you treat” for the entire session. That’s the ultimate goal.

This ability to make quick associations can also be a disadvantage. For example, if the pace is too rapid at first, and the horse gets really excited for ­reinforcement, it’s easy to accidentally reinforce the sequence of wiggle/paw/vocalize, then relax, then receive a treat, such that the horse’s response suggests he thinks he has to first do the undesirable action before relaxing to get the reward. While it’s best to avoid this, it, too, can be fixed.

Once the horse is comfortable and remains relaxed while I tend to him, doing something he enjoys, I then like to work on reinforcing standing relaxed behavior when nothing is being done. In my experience, this is the stage at which many handlers accidentally teach their horses undesirable behaviors. When a horse is restrained and nothing is happening, it is his natural response to paw, wiggle, or vocalize. The consequences of the pawing will dictate whether this continues. So the trick is to ride out any undesirable behavior as much as is safe. When there is pause, approach and resume working, all while stretching out the pauses.

Sitting here writing this response, I worry it sounds like a long, ­drawn-out process, and it might seem that way at first. But working with students and clients, I am always impressed by how many people have the natural intuition to make this go very smoothly and efficiently. The first and only hurdle for most seasoned horse people is to give up the punitive (punishment) approach and focus only on rewarding the target behavior.

For horses with a history of cross-tie problems, the behavior rehab concepts are similar. You know the horse’s issue, so you can customize your behavior modification plan. On the other hand, it will likely take longer for the undesirable behaviors to “extinguish” than to prevent them from developing in the first place.

Having said that, in my experience, older horses that have been getting into trouble when on cross-ties, loading, or even during farrier work do really well when you change your routine and consistently use a new approach based on learning science. They often respond faster than you would imagine.

Standing Fast: Standing Surgeries for Horses

Standing surgeries on sedated horses can provide good, if not better, results than equivalent surgeries on fully anesthetized horses, without the added costs and complications. Read an excerpt of this feature from our May 2019 issue of The Horse now.

Standing Surgeries for Horses

Surgeons can perform an increasing number of procedures on standing sedated horses

horse lies on a massive surgical table, blue drapes covering much of his body and surgical scrub booties over his hooves. Anesthesia equipment hums as the surgical team works efficiently and expertly in their various roles to complete a procedure. This is the classic equine surgery scenario, which is necessary for most colic cases and a variety of other procedures.

However, there are many surgeries that can be performed in the standing horse. From simple castrations to more complex procedures such as ovary removal and repair of simple fractures, researchers are recognizing the benefits of standing surgeries and, say our sources, pursuing them more frequently. In any type of surgery, a variety of circumstances dictates which approach—standing or recumbent (lying down)—a veterinarian will choose. 

Why Standing?

Regardless of the species, general anesthesia (induced, controlled complete loss of consciousness) has its risks, primarily associated with side effects of the drugs used to keep the patient unconscious. Because of their size and their nature, horses face even greater risks, say our sources.

“Most horses do really well, but a very low percentage might develop issues like myopathies (muscle diseases), neuropathies (nerve damage), or laryngeal collapse,” says David G. Suarez-Fuentes, DVM, of BluePearl Veterinary Partners, in Tennessee, who studied standing surgeries at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, in Ames.

This is mainly due to horses’ sheer mass, he explains. When a horse is placed on his side or back for surgical procedures, his weight compresses the muscles and airways and can possibly interfere with circulation. And the heavier the horse, the worse it can be.

“That’s really not a natural position for them to lie in for hours at a time without moving, and their muscles can literally get crushed, leading to tying-up (the breakdown or destruction of skeletal muscle cells, causing trembling, sweating, and refusal to move) or even nerve paralysis,” says Robin Fontenot, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS-LA, assistant clinical professor (equine) in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Starkville. What’s more, horses’ flight instinct puts them at risk of self-injury during recovery, Fontenot says. Disoriented and scared, horses can come out of anesthesia ready to bolt but lacking the coordination for safe movement. “They can fracture their limbs or facial bones, bite their tongues, get soft tissue injuries, and even injure the surgical site,” she says. “Of course, we plan for that and try to help them avoid it, but you can’t always control it.”

Getting around general anesthesia altogether is a good way to avoid these risks, our sources say. Providing an equine surgical patient with medicated sedation that allows him to be “drowsy” without having to lie down, along with local anesthesia (numbing where pain is likely to occur) at the surgical site, circumvents such risks.

Practical Positioning

A completely anesthetized horse’s internal parts get compressed while on his side. So standing upright offers a major advantage in many kinds of surgeries, our sources say.

“Getting in the throat for operations like laser cautery of the larynx, tiebacks, and laryngeal reinnervation is greatly simplified when the horse is standing sedated because the horse is in his exact natural position,” says Fabrice Rossignol, PhD, DVM, Dipl. ECVS, equine surgery specialist at the Grosbois Equine Clinic, in Boissy Saint Léger, France.

This arrangement makes it easier to identify, manipulate, and work with the target structures, he says. It also conserves the tissues’ natural feel—which could change under the pressure of other tissues in a lying position. “They’re a lot more supple and easier to work with,” he says.

Also for head or throat conditions, with standing surgery the horse doesn’t need to have a tube placed down his trachea, Rossignol adds. “Obviously, that tube can get in the way, so eliminating it is a clear advantage.”

Suarez-Fuentes finds similar benefits when performing tenotomies—­therapeutic slicing of tendons—partly because standing keeps the tendon in its normal state of tension. “The standing position lets us palpate the tendon better and recognize anatomical landmarks more easily, helping ensure the procedure is done correctly,” he says.

Positioning is also improved for ­operations in other regions, especially the sinuses and the pelvic area. “For ovariectomies and cryptorchidectomies (removal of ovaries and retained testicles, respectively), for example, access is greatly facilitated because the intestines all fall naturally underneath,” Rossignol says.

As a finishing touch, the standing position allows surgeons to “test” their work in more natural conditions, he says. Once they’ve completed their procedure, they can make sure structures line up and function correctly. The fact that the horse is awake and, even under sedation, can move and breathe, makes this testing—as well as any necessary adjustments—more reliable before closing up the surgery site.

About The Author


Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.


Colic: It’s All Academic Until it Happens to You

Journalist Pat Raia has written about horse health and welfare issues for years, but she learned it’s a whole different ballgame when your own horse is the patient. Here’s what she experienced when her horse colicked recently.


On more than one occasion, I was first in line to help other members of my barn family soldier through whatever crises that beset their horses. Scratched eyelid? I was there holding the ointment for the owner to apply. Foot troubles? I handed out wrapping materials for the trainer. Colic? I offered earnest embraces to owners before they and their horses departed for surgical sites.

And while each of those gestures was sincere, inside I was breathing a sigh of relief that Santino (Sonny to his friends) wasn’t the horse that had scratched his eyelid, suffered from super-tender feet, or was in need of colic surgery. In fact, I was so accustomed to my little horse being nearly indestructible that I was panic-stricken when something actually was wrong.

On a sunny Saturday morning I began tacking Sonny up for a light workout. Just before I tightened the girth, he, well, broke wind. Not much, just enough for me to joke about needing a gas mask. We proceeded outside to warm-up and pick our way through a couple of pattern exercises, and Sonny broke wind again.

“C’mon, Santino,” I chided him. “I’m choking up here!”

But he did it again.

Even so, aside from wisecracking, I didn’t think much about Sonny’s case of the vapors. After all, he’d been flatulent before. So after our ride, I placed him in the cross-ties, pulled off his saddle, shoved some chunks of carrot into my pocket, and led him out to his paddock, where he proceeded to turn his nose up at the treat, tuck all four of his feet beneath him, and lie down.

I was horrified. Was he colicking? What if he’d been poisoned by some weed growing around the barn? What if…? I awfulized the situation until I was beside myself with fear.

I unlocked the gate just as Sonny was getting back on his feet. I snapped on his lead line and proceeded to walk him around the paddock.

Around that time, our trainer arrived stethoscope in hand. Sonny’s heart was not racing, she said, and his gut gurgled normally. His breathing was not labored, and his skin was not clammy. He seemed to be fiddle fit. Still, we kept walking.

About 10 minutes into the march, Sonny stopped to defecate. I was elated as only the owner of a non-impacted horse could be. We walked some more and he did it again. I was beside myself with relief. When we stopped, he started grazing.

I exited the paddock, retrieved a chair from the barn, sat down and observed him for about half-an-hour. There he was, happily munching as if nothing had ever happened. Then a whole other set of emotions kicked in.

“You frightened me to death, Santino Il Bambino Raia!” I shrieked, shaking my finger in his direction. “Are you proud of yourself?”

Sonny looked up to see what all the ruckus was about, then went right back to his grazing. The entire mild colic episode had passed. We’d acted quick and averted a crisis, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying.

So I left for the afternoon. Our trainer promised to keep an eye on Sonny and to inform me if his behavior changed, and I promised to check in regularly.

As I made my way down the driveway, I whispered to myself, “One more experience that’s just academic … until it happens to you.”

About The Author


Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

Feeding Horses With Equine Asthma

What should and shouldn’t horses with heaves (or equine asthma) eat? Our nutritionist offers advice.

feeding horses with equine asthma

Q.   My veterinarian just diagnosed my 23-year-old mare with heaves. What’s the best feed and forage for her? I know, ideally, being on pasture is best for the condition but, unfortunately, she can only be turned out at night because of an allergy to midges.

—Barb, via e-mail

A   .Heaves is a common name for recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), which is one of the syndromes characterized under the equine asthma umbrella. Horses with RAO often have a narrowed airway, produce mucus in their airways, and suffer from bronchospasm (a temporary constriction of the airways into the lungs caused by muscle contraction).

Unlike horses that have inflammatory airway disease (IAD, another equine asthma syndrome), horses with RAO have trouble breathing at rest, resulting in an increased resting respiratory rate and cough.

Management Tip: Limit Access to Irritants

A big component of managing asthmatic horses is to limit contact with anything that might be an airway irritant, so it’s best to avoid keeping such equids in dusty environments and limit their contact with mold spores. Of course, this can make the typical barn environment challenging: Bedding is often dusty, and even good-quality hay contains dust and low levels of mold spores. Look for dust-free bedding and avoid using straw—frequently, it is contaminated with mold.

Another tip: It’s best to remove horses from stalls when they’re cleaned because the process disturbs settled mold and dust, rendering it airborne and more likely to come in to contact with lung tissue.

And, sweep barn aisles rather than using leaf blowers, which generate huge amounts of airborne particles that are potentially hazardous to all horses—not just those with asthma. Ideally, keep horses with asthma out of stalls when barns are being swept, as well.

Feeding Forage

Research has shown that using specially designed hay steamers can essentially eliminate mold and dust from hay. While these steamers are, by far, the most effective way of reducing these irritants, they’re not always a practical or financially viable option.

In such cases soaking hay is the next best choice. Hay only needs to be soaked for a short period of time to reduce mold and dust contamination; avoid lengthy soaking, which can reduce the hay’s nutritional value.

If neither option is practical, consider using hay pellets or cubes, because these are less dusty than long-stem hay. You can use an automatic feeder to provide pellets at intervals around the clock.

Regardless of what forage form you choose, try to feed from ground level. This is a more natural grazing position and has been shown to benefit respiratory health, because the horse’s airways are able to drain properly.

Potential Pasture Problems

Pasture is a good option for some horses with RAO. However, others can be irritated by pollen during the spring and summer. Given your horse’s age, I’d recommend asking your veterinarian to confirm that your horse does not have pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing’s disease), which can lead to insulin resistance and laminitis development, especially when horses are on pasture.

Aged horses have an increased risk of comorbidities, or multiple diseases occurring simultaneously. A 26-year retroactive study of 70,744 horses in the United Kingdom showed that veterinarians diagnosed 1,232 horses with RAO; of those 11% also had PPID. If your horse has PPID, as well as RAO, and especially if she’s insulin resistant, this might impact how you manage her pasture access.

Feed Fatty Acids

Finally, consider feeding omega-3 fatty acids, which research indicates help support a healthy inflammatory response. One supplement shown to help horses with equine asthma provides docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a form of omega-3 found in algae and fish oil, as well as other ingredients including certain mushrooms, MSM, and vitamin C.

The Bottom Line

Feeding an appropriate diet is an important part of managing horses with RAO. But, ultimately, your horse might need medication for part of the year or even year-round to help control inflammation and improve lung function. Your veterinarian can advise you on the best form of management specific to your horse’s needs.

About The Author


Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

Controlling Dust on Horse Properties

Posted by | May 1, 2019 | , , , , , , , , , ,


Controlling Dust on Horse Properties

Keep dust to a minimum in arenas, barns, and paddocks for both aesthetic and health reasons

A group of friends and I were riding in my outdoor arena the other night, really kicking up the dust on a warm summer evening. As I took a break, I watched the hazy plumes billow across the pastures and thought to myself, “I sure hope the windows in the house are closed.” Dust, I figured, is a fact of life when you have horses—a minor inconvenience you learn to live and put up with. Right?

Not so, says Ann M. Swinker, PhD, who worked as an extension horse specialist and associate professor of equine science at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, prior to her retirement in 2017. Swinker says dust is actually quite hazardous to both human and animal health.  

“The problem with dust is that people are actually more susceptible to damage compared to livestock, who have much bigger lungs,” she says.  

In a 2006 study Swinker conducted while working at Colorado State University, she found that the incidence of the respiratory infection bronchitis was 35% higher for riding instructors than for the general population (5.4%, American Lung Association, 2001), simply from working out in all that dust. Thirty-nine percent of riding instructors reported wheezing, usually associated with a cold or respiratory infection. The prevalence of reported asthma was 17% and physician-diagnosed asthma was 14% among riding instructors, compared to 6% and 12%, respectively, in the general American population. Twenty-three percent of the respondents had a history of pneumonia, and 25% of this group had been hospitalized.  

These statistics point to one thing: All that dust you’re inhaling when you’re working with horses is harmful to your respiratory system as well as theirs. In this article we’ll break down how to control it both in the ring and around the barn.

The best way to avoid dusty arena footing is to begin with the right footing--the least dusty option.

The Arid Arena

“You know you’ve got a problem in your arena if you reach down to grab a handful of footing and it runs through your fingers,” Swinker says. “Then you know it is way too low on moisture. You want to be able to see at least a little clumping of damp arena footing material.”

Swinker started out as an animal physiologist doing nutrient work. Forty years later she is helping horse farms meet regulatory standards with manure management and other practices. A horse person herself, Swinker has raised Arabian horses since the ’60s, and she sees a lot of issues with manure and dust control. “It fits hand in hand,” she says.

Manure is composed of fine organic material. If it’s not picked up, that material either binds with water in the rainy season, turning into mud, or it dries out in the summer sun, becoming extremely fine organic material that blows away in the wind as dust. Swinker’s research shows that the finer pieces of organic material are likely to travel deeper into human lungs, causing increased incidence of respiratory disease.  

Swinker says the best way to avoid dusty arena footing is to begin with the right footing—the least dusty option. “Sand is the gold standard in arena footing,” she says, explaining that most all arena footing products need sand to stabilize. Shredded tires, shredded tennis shoes, fiber products, crushed wood … each of these products usually still needs sand of some sort mixed in. “Coarse washed sand that’s not too fine is best,” Swinker says.

Sand comes in different grades, and its durability depends on its parent material. River sand might be from river rock, beach sand might have more shell material, granite might be more angular and chunky. Avoid any kind of product labeled as a waste or reject product. “Waste sands in the industry are already pulverized and can get really dusty,” says Swinker. “Crushed up sandstone can be too dusty to begin with.

“You have to go with the type of sand that’s available in your area, but it really needs to be angular,” she adds. “Take a magnifying glass and look at it; if it’s too smooth it will clump together and not let water drip through. Just by making sure that your sand particles aren’t too crushed and broken down will help a lot to reduce dust.”  

What are your control options? “Most people prefer water as their dust control; it’s safe, has no side effects, it’s easy, and environmentally safe,” Swinker says. “Vegetable oil will work, but it’s messy and expensive. There are wetting agents from the horticultural industry, which hold moisture the same as they do for bedding plants. These are very expensive to use at the scale of a horse property; the best thing still is just watering the footing.”

Watering systems are many and varied, ranging from overhead sprinkler systems in indoor arenas to lawn sprinklers, spray guns that shoot in a circle, or boom sprayers on the back of a tractor or truck. “Anything that’s not manual makes life easier, but is more expensive,” Swinker says. “The cheapest and easiest is still a hand-held hose. What’s important is to never allow an arena to completely dry out, otherwise it’s a real challenge to rehydrate.

“You need to work the arena, too; you can’t just let the water sit there,” she continues. “An arena is never done. You need to keep watching it, watering it, adding sand, working it. The finer the sand, the more often it will need to be watered. It’s something you just can’t let go unless you’re willing to start all over again.”

Whatever footing product you choose, it will wear out. “Replace the sand often to reduce dust production,” Swinker says. Remember, “the smaller the particle, the more they can really reach into the lungs.”  

Swinker suggests taking a tip from the Denver Stock Horse show facility, which places its different piles of arena sand outside, letting them rest and mix with rain, which sorts out the very fine silica dust particles.

Landscaping is another possible dust control option. Plant native trees and shrubs, which require less watering and are more hardy and naturally resistant to pests and disease than their non-native cousins, around your arena. A hedge row of shrubs or a row of trees bordering your outdoor arena might also help keep your neighbors from eating your dust, and it will help block the wind (and its drying effect) as well as shield arena footing from the hot summer sun.  

Good ventilation in the form of windows, doors, and vents is paramount.

The Hazy Horse Farm

Then there’s the dust in other areas of your horse property. We know that inhaling dust can stress equine respiratory systems—we can hear the effects as our horses cough! The list of diseases associated with dusty conditions is long, including a persistent cough, heaves, and pneumonia.

Indoor dust from bedding, dirt floors or aisleways, outdoor paddocks, and hay can be tough on horses and barn workers. Barn construction plays a big part in dust control, and good ventilation is paramount. Horse facilities, especially older ones, are often underventilated due to the misconception of needing air-tight construction to trap and hold heat. “Older barns tend to be closed up tight, making dust, mold, other particles, and moisture a breeding ground for respiratory diseases,” says Swinker. “In winter it’s even worse.” But aside from a light misting of water on stall bedding, what are your options?

Eileen Fabian-Wheeler, PhD, has written books on agricultural engineering topics, including barn construction and ventilation. A professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Pennsylvania State University and a former horse owner, she specializes in ventilation system design for agricultural operations, including horse facilities. Fabian-Wheeler participated in a study in which researchers outfitted horses with dust monitors on their halters. The results showed that horses experience far more dust exposure in the stable than in a riding arena. “Horses really aren’t in the arena for all that long nor are they always going fast enough to really stir up the dust,” Fabian-Wheeler explains. “But in a stall horses have their face in hay for a large part of the day. Combining that with dusty bedding, they are being exposed to way more dust.”

Here are some options Fabian-Wheeler suggests for reducing dust in stables:

  • Keep horses outside in a pasture or paddock during stall-cleaning and aisle-sweeping. Researchers have shown that it takes anywhere from a half-hour to an hour for dust to settle post-stall-cleaning, so don’t move horses back in until after the dust has dissipated.
  • Store hay in a structure separate from stables to reduce stall dust; overhead hay storage in horse barns is particularly dusty.
  • Do not attach an arena to the barn. “There are all kinds of testimonials as to how much this affects dust in stalls,” Fabian-Wheeler says. If the airspaces are shared, horses end up inhaling the dust that’s kicked up.
  • Consider an all-weather surface in your paddocks and confinement areas, such as crushed rock or a similar gravel product that will drain and keep them mud-free in the winter and less dusty in the summer.
  • Bring as much fresh air as possible into stalled areas. This includes windows and doors and narrow vents at the eaves, which should remain open even in the winter. Some form of opening is needed year-round to allow stale air to escape.  
  • All arenas are going to have dust to some extent. Again, the key is to not start with very dusty material. Bigger particles eventually break down into smaller particles, which are problematic. Starting with very fine footing material particles is extremely detrimental. Fabian-Wheeler recommends adding in sawdust to sand-based arena footing as 10% of the mixture to help hold moisture.
  • Chose a less-dusty bedding option such as pelleted bedding, which comes bagged. Or, if your horses have rubber stall mats and paddock access, you might be able to eliminate bedding use altogether.

Take-Home Message

Air quality in stables is of utmost importance for the horses living (and people working) there. Fortunately, you can make many beneficial changes in stable management, including selecting low-dust hay, footing, and bedding and supplying fresh air via ample ventilation. Ideally, horses should spend as much time turned out as possible. The key point is to remember that it’s so much easier to prevent dust than get rid of it.

Back to me and my dusty outdoor arena—what did I do? In their stalls and paddocks my horses are faring pretty well dustwise. I store my hay in a separate building, eliminating all those potential particles proliferating in the barn air. My horses don’t have bedding because they each have continuous access to outdoor paddocks. My barns and shelters are all open year-round, again allowing for good fresh air via ventilation.  

But where dust still can be an issue is in my outdoor arena, with the billowing clouds that potentially bother my neighbors and possibly impact my horses—and me. My solution to the dust storm, now that I have recognized I have a problem, is to research and invest in some type of watering system for my outdoor arena. Dust, be gone!

About The Author


Alayne Renée Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise controls and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho. She also authors the Smart Horse Keeping blog.

The Track Pony: A Racehorse’s Best Friend

Track ponies, or pony horses, play important roles both on training and race days.

track ponies

If you’ve ever turned out a quiet older gelding with a field of young horses, you know what a calming effect he can have on the rambunctious youngsters. He settles them down and even gives them an occasional physical reminder to behave.

That’s the theory behind pony horses at the racetrack. Pair a young, excitable racehorse with a gelding who’s been around a while, and the racehorse will likely settle down and focus on his job instead of being silly. That can not only lead to more victories but also make the entire experience safer for everyone.

“For a trainer, hiring a pony horse to take a racehorse to the track is like purchasing an insurance policy,” says Amy Arena.

Arena, who now lives in Seattle, Washington, ponied horses for years at Southern California racetracks, her charges including champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Halfbridled, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Oscar Performance. She adopted former racehorse Quiet Thunder, renamed him Marcel, and turned him into one of the calmest ponies on the track. Today, after a few years of accompanying racehorses under Western tack, Marcel is learning another new job as a show hunter.

“Racehorses are inclined to travel too quickly,” says Arena, “and pony horses help them maintain the same pace during a warmup.”

A Calming Presence

American trainers hire someone like Arena to accompany each racehorse on the track before a race. The pony rider holds onto a strap passed through the racehorse’s bit so the horse cannot run off. Pony and racehorse walk together as a part of the post parade past the grandstand, giving bettors a chance to see the racehorses.

Once the horses reach the racetrack backstretch, the jockey warms up the racehorse, either with or without the pony, depending on the trainer’s instructions or what the jockey feels the horse needs. After the warmup the pony takes the racehorse to the starting gate.

Ponies also play valuable roles during morning training hours. Some trainers own ponies and either accompany horses to the track on the pony themselves or have an employee do it. Others hire people like Arena to come by the barn at specific times to take horses to the track.

If a racehorse is just getting started in training, the pony might accompany him completely around the track at a jog or a gallop. As the racehorse becomes fitter and needs faster work, the pony might “backtrack” with him, going clockwise around the outside part of the track until it’s time for the racehorse to turn around and perform faster works or longer gallops by himself.

Trainers in many foreign countries, such as those in Europe, don’t use ponies at the track. When a European horse comes to America to race in events such as the Breeders’ Cup, some of their trainers use pony horses and others do not.

“The European riders are always impressed with how well the racehorses relax when they are introduced to the concept of having a pony horse,” says Arena, who accompanied several Europeans during the 2017 Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar. “The racehorses usually find comfort in having some company and another horse to follow. The calm demeanor of a pony horse usually helps to give the racehorse confidence in its new surroundings.”

Racetrack Routines

Pony riders often own more than one pony, so they can use one in the mornings during training and another in the afternoons at the races. Either way, Arena started her ponies’ day by feeding them breakfast at 4:00 a.m., about 45 minutes before the track opened for training.

track ponies

The morning pony might go out with four to eight horses, depending on each racehorse’s needs. He might also take the racehorses through the paddock or bring them to the starting gate for schooling.

“Each horse can take between 15 and 45 minutes per set,” says Arena. “When the track closes at 10 a.m., it is time for a warm shampoo.”

Once dry, it’s lunchtime for the ponies. Arena would tack up her afternoon pony well before the first race, which can start anywhere from noon to 2 p.m., depending on the track and the time of year. An afternoon pony can work up to as many races as are on each day’s card, usually eight, and however many days a week the racetrack runs, usually three to five. Between races Arena gave her pony time to rest and drink water in the shade.

“A lot of race fans bring the pony horses carrots and apples to snack on between each race,” says Arena. “So the ponies really look forward to getting treats while they wait for the horses to come out of the paddock.”

Training and Retraining

Some racehorses first learn to pony at the farm where they are started under saddle, while others get their first ponying lessons at the track. Ponying a horse without rider or tack is also a way to start getting a young horse fit.

Arena has worked with trainers to teach racehorses how to pony.

“Some horses are difficult to teach, especially young colts who are exceptionally studdish,” she says. “You have to take baby steps in teaching certain horses how to pony, and I usually start by walking (my pony) on the left side of the racehorse and slightly in front so that the racehorse’s head is adjacent to my hip.”

As the racehorse becomes used to that, Arena gradually introduces the leather pony strap, putting it through the bit and making light contact. Usually the racehorse learns to be led easily, especially since it has likely had many leading lessons on the ground.

“Occasionally, a horse will panic and try to get away from the light pressure,” says Arena. “So you have to be very careful not to work too quickly or be rough.”

Arena has also retrained racehorses to become pony horses. That process starts with careful selection of the individual. Pony horses are almost always geldings because they are calmer with a racehorse than a stud or a mare. Plus, because many racehorses are still colts, they are more likely to keep their minds on racing next to a gelded pony horse.

Top Attributes

Arena wants a well-conformed horse for soundness because pony horses must travel many miles daily. She also looks for mounts that aren’t reactive to other horses.

“Most horses react in a chain: Monkey see, monkey do,” Arena says. “When a racehorse gets nervous Marcel stays calm. He doesn’t react to noises in the grandstand or most things that would spook a horse in general.”

At last year’s Breeders’ Cup, the Marine Corps marching band, complete with giant flags, walked directly in front of Arena and Marcel. Though Marcel had never seen a band before, he stood quietly.

“He also doesn’t mind another horse getting into his personal space,” says Arena.

This is crucial for a pony horse, who must gallop right next to and against the racehorse, sometimes with the horse bumping into his right side or his hindquarters.

“A great pony horse will learn to push the racehorse back and establish a certain dominance without being physically aggressive,” says Arena.

She uses principles of dressage in her retraining, noting that Marcel could perform a second-level dressage test.

“A great pony horse travels with loose contact on the bit and listens to light cues from the rider’s seat and pressure from both the upper and lower leg,” says Arena. “I occasionally have to drop the reins while ponying, and my horse needs to maintain the same pace, speed up rapidly or slow in a hurry, move laterally, and even stop suddenly, depending on what the racehorse decides to do.”

And a good pony horse will anticipate what a racehorse will do.

They’re Athletes, Too

As with any athletic horse, Arena monitors Marcel’s health vigilantly, especially his legs, to catch any problems early. Taking good care of a pony pays dividends, as many can work well into their 20s.

“The horses seem to appreciate their job and purpose,” says Arena. “Most certainly wouldn’t behave so well and help their riders so much if they didn’t like the job.”

The Race-Day Routine

A strict series of pre-race procedures is designed to ensure racehorse safety and welfare.

the race-day routine

You are intimately familiar with your off-track Thoroughbred’s daily routine. You know when he eats, plays, and sleeps—it’s part of the fun of ownership.

But what was his routine like at the racetrack? In particular, what regimen did he follow on competition day?

Racing is highly regulated to ensure the participants’ safety and to protect those who bet on the horses. The established safeguards mean your horse had to undergo several steps before and after he raced.

Everyday training begins well before dawn, and on normal training days a racehorse gets breakfast and then heads to the track for whatever exercise his trainer deems necessary.

But if he is going to compete, he won’t need as much exercise in the morning and he must be available for a pre-race exam.

Sean McCarthy, a trainer on the Southern California circuit, says a horse’s race-day routine is to some extent determined by what time of day he’s racing. Most Thoroughbreds race in the afternoon, but with the first race listed as anywhere from noon to 2 p.m. and a slate of eight to 12 races in a day approximately a half-hour apart, a horse might not compete until 7 p.m. At some tracks Thoroughbreds even compete at night, perhaps not until 10 or 11 p.m.

“I usually will give a horse a light breakfast on race day and send him to the track for a little jog in the morning,” says McCarthy.

Old-time racing trainers often “drew” horses, keeping all feed from them that day until they raced. Because horses are natural grazers, McCarthy feels it’s healthier to keep some forage in front of the horse, typically free-choice timothy hay. If a horse races late in the day, McCarthy says he might give him a little grain at around 2 p.m.

Official veterinarians, employed by the racetrack or the state racing commission, determine much of a horse’s race-day routine. These veterinarians are in charge of confirming that all horses are sound to race, and to do that they examine horses several times on race day.

They begin in the morning, walking the stabling area and inspecting every horse that will compete that day.

Most mornings you can find Dana Stead, DVM, at one of several Southern California racetracks—Santa Anita, Del Mar, or Los Alamitos, depending on which one is currently racing. He shares the duties with another veterinarian, usually one employed by the California Horse Racing Board.

“We’ll see (the horses) between 7 and 11 a.m.,” says Stead. “We’ll bring the horse out of the stall and identify them by checking their lip tattoo. I typically have them jog about 50 to 75 feet, both away and toward me. Then I bend down and palpate their legs, feeling for any heat or swelling of the joint, tendon, or soft-tissue structures. I look for any pain when they flex the leg or pulses in the feet. Those are the main indicators of inflammation.”

In many ways, these veterinarians perform assessments akin to prepurchase exams. But unlike those exams, where vets often are looking at horses for the first time, Stead is usually somewhat familiar with these horses. He keeps notes on every horse he examines and enters that information into a database. The next time a horse races, Stead can compare what he sees on the morning inspection to his previous notes.

These notes can be helpful to veterinarians at other tracks, too. If a horse, for example, ships from California to New York for a race, the California notes can be sent for the New York vet to use as a reference.

“Any regulatory veterinarian across the country can look at our pre-race examinations, and we can look at theirs to note any changes,” says Stead. “That’s a big part of it—noting changes over time.”

Stead cited a hypothetical example of a horse whose tendons look perfectly fine at one pre-race exam, and then three months later one tendon has thickened. Such a change would warrant a closer look and might result in the veterinarian recommending the horse not race.

In both the morning pre-race exam and later in the day, when Stead examines the horse again, he can recommend to the stewards (the judges in charge of seeing that the races are run fairly) that the horse be scratched and not race. This is done for the safety of everyone involved.

After the morning pre-race exam, the horse returns to his stall. Trainers usually try to keep activity around the stall to a minimum to help the horse rest in the hours before his scheduled race. Ideally, a horse lies down and sleeps for a few hours.

Once the races begin, announcements are made over the stable loudspeakers as to when the horses for each race should head to the receiving barn, which is where horses get checked in for racing. The horses are called about 45 minutes before their race.

Grooms walk their charges to the receiving barn, and as the horses approach it, the horse identifier looks them over. This includes flipping the upper lip to be sure the horse’s tattoo matches that of the horse listed to race, as well as examining markings.

This process helps ensure that the wrong horse isn’t brought over to race. Sometimes this can be an honest mistake—a groom grabs the wrong bay horse with no white markings, for example.

The process is also designed to ensure that no one tries to run the wrong horse on purpose. Say someone tried to race a 5-year-old in a race for 2-year-olds. Theoretically, the 5-year-old would have age, strength, and experience going for him and could easily beat the 2-year-olds. That would be unfair not only to the 2-year-olds in the race but also the people betting on them.

At the receiving barn the groom is assigned a number to wear that corresponds to his horse’s number in the program. That allows people to better identify the horses as they parade before the public in the walking ring.

Stead says veterinarians draw blood for testing from each horse at the receiving barn. This detects (and, so, helps prevent) “milkshaking,” the process of tubing the horse with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which is believed to enhance performance by lowering lactic acid buildup in the muscles and reducing fatigue. Blood-testing is one of many tests done to see that no horse has an unfair advantage over another.

From the receiving barn, the grooms lead the horses to the paddock and walking ring. Every track is configured differently, but typically the paddock is adjacent to the walking ring, with individual stalls for saddling in the paddock. At Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the stalls line one side of the walking ring.

The trainer or assistant trainer saddles the horse in the paddock, then the groom leads the horse to the walking ring so the betting public can view him. The horse’s owners, connections and trainer usually stand inside the walking ring.

Stead watches the saddling and stands inside the walking ring to oversee the entire process in the interest of safety.

“I keep a watch to make sure the horses don’t flip over or maybe kick the wall hard and hurt themselves,” he says.

If this happens, Stead must determine if the horse is injured and should be withdrawn from the race. As with the pre-race exam, Stead would recommend withdrawal to the stewards.

As the horses circle in the walking ring, the jockeys come out and receive last-minute instructions from the trainers. This is also an opportunity for the horse’s owner to meet the jockey and even pose for a photo. The trainer gives the jockey a leg up onto the horse, and the horses walk to the racetrack.

In the United States most horses go to the starting gate with a pony—an older ridden horse of any breed. The ponies are another safety measure, a way to keep an excited racehorse from running off before the race. In many other countries ponies aren’t custom, and some horses that come to U.S. tracks from abroad go to the post without one.

The jockeys warm up their horses before the race, jogging or cantering as they deem helpful for their individual horse. Stead watches the entire process from the track, searching for any signs that horses aren’t sound enough to race.

the race-day routine

“We’re looking at how they are moving with a rider on their backs,” he says. “Sometimes that will show something that wasn’t seen in the barn area. Because they are also on a deeper surface, something else might become evident.”

The jockeys might also notice if things are amiss. They can ask Stead to look at something or even tell him the horse isn’t moving right. It’s all a process designed to be sure the horse is physically ready to race.

He watches the horses load into the gate. If a horse were to get injured at any point in this process, Stead can recommend scratching it.

Then the race begins. While the horses run, Stead follows them in a truck so he can be right there if something happens. After the race he again watches the horses come back to be unsaddled on the track, looking for anything to add to his notes.

Racetracks often keep water and ice nearby in case a horse gets overheated. Applying ice or water can sometimes keep a horse from suffering from a muscle disorder called tying-up. In addition, Stead keeps medications on hand that he can administer to help a horse in an emergency.

The grooms return to unsaddle their charges and take them back to the barn. The victor, of course, poses in the winner’s circle.

The winner and a few other designated horses then return to the receiving barn for post-race testing.

“In stakes races, it’s always the first, second, and third horses,” says Stead. “For other races it’s the winner plus a steward’s choice. Usually, it’s a random horse, but it might be a well-beaten favorite or a big longshot who ran second.”

At the receiving barn the veterinarian draws blood again and collects urine samples. Whether the horses go straight back to their stalls or spend time in the receiving barn, the grooms walk them, either by hand or on a hot-walker, until cool and bathe them before giving an evening meal.

It’s a long day, and the horses will get some deserving rest overnight and also usually for the next two days. This helps them mentally and physically before gearing up again for the next race.

About The Author


Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.