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Improperly Heated Barns May Cause Horse Health Problems

by Donald Stotts

STILLWATER--Horse owners who use heated barns to keep water from freezing and to protect horses from cold temperatures during late fall and wintertime should remember supplemental heat can cause problems if used incorrectly.

Ventilation is important when horses are kept inside a barn, said Dave Freeman, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service equine specialist.

"Closing up a barn to maintain heat may increase respiratory diseases, because of high ammonia content and bacterial growth in stalls," Freeman said.

Closed barns have increased humidity. This humidity combined with warm temperature can cause enough nitrogen smell or bacteria growth to irritate the horse's respiratory system. These frequently result in chronic, minor respiratory problems that interfere with animal performance.

Freeman said controlled research is difficult because of the variability between barns and lack of controls. However, many veterinarians attest to an increase in respiratory problems in heated barns with high humidity.

"The solution is to turn down the heat and get rid of the humidity by increasing air flow," Freeman said.

Some farm operators have reported beneficial results by installing exhaust fans that move air when the humidity rises. Freeman said there are methods to make these systems automatic by installing reostates that respond to humidity levels.

Another problem is that while the ideal temperature for horses is around 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, this "ideal range" may be neither cost effective nor a way to promote equine health.

"Increasing the heat of a barn above 55 degrees Fahrenheit not only can be expensive, it also may have negative effects when moving horses out of the barn into colder temperatures," Freeman said.

Horses housed in warm environments will have less hair cover. Adequate hair cover is extremely important during cold conditions, providing the horse with needed insulation from near freezing or freezing temperatures.

Freeman said one alternative is to maintain barn temperatures at around 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and use blankets to keep horses with short hair coats protected from cold temperatures.

Equine managers also need to remember that horses under artificial lighting programs for reproductive or show reasons will shed hair. Therefore, special considerations must be given to protect these animals from cold, windy and wet weather.

"Part of the problem with maintaining proper barn temperature is that people working in the barn often like it a bit warmer than is recommended for the horses," Freeman said.

Horse managers should maintain barn temperatures at a level hat will help promote healthy horses, not at a level dictated by a worker's personal comfort. Freeman said this might require periodic checks by the farm manager to ensure temperatures are set at the proper level.

"It's often just a case of human nature. If you're cold, you don't think twice about turning up the heat a bit," Freeman said. "But that oversight can cause health-related problems for horses, which in turn can mean money lost to the horse owner."


We would like to take this opportunity to thank Oklahoma State University for allowing us to provide you with this information.


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