Could Equine Asthma Be A Sign of Emotional Stress?
A couple months ago Riley developed a deep, throaty cough, loss of energy and an increased respiratory rate. Our veterinarian was a bit perplexed based on our horse keeping practices, but eventually diagnosed him with the equivalent of Equine Asthma. He was prescribed a two-week course of Zyrtec with further discussions about how to manage this disease long term. I struggled with this diagnosis as Riley is a 15-year-old Canadian who was born outside and has lived outside his entire life. It was winter in Vermont, the ground had been covered in snow and our second cut hay was of great quality.
Listening To Your Gut
My gut told me that his symptoms were a result of the stress he was feeling due to a couple changes in his life. The first one was a concern regarding Jordie, an energetic playful Morgan and Mike, our herd elder. Mike’s owner was concerned that their playful antics were getting too tough on him physically. A trusted intuitive suggested that Riley could perhaps step up to help manage Jordie’s energy. I explained the situation to Riley and asked for his help. He took this request seriously. To watch how things unfolded was quite astonishing, especially for a PB & J, Peacemaker sort of horse. Riley prefers to be in the middle of the herd, neither leading nor being last in line. He stays well out of the way of conflict (unless it involves feeding time and the gate😉). However, he took this request from me seriously. More than once I saw him standing on the bridge to the back pasture with Mike on one side and Jordie on the other, wanting to cross. He stood calmly, quietly, and grounded for long periods of time, holding space and keeping things calm. In the 7 years he has been with me I had never seen him do this.
The second and more stressful change was a difficult integration we were going through with a horse that arrived in the fall. After a very slow process it was time to turn them out together. It was fine at first but then at some point Mike began challenging the new gelding in big, aggressive ways. During that time this horse had begun to randomly chase Riley away, thus causing him to often stand apart from the herd for long periods of time. I watched this for a couple of weeks waiting for things to settle down. The lead horse Scout spent a lot of time “talking” to the new guy about manners, respecting bubbles of personal space, calming down, etc. He was separated from the herd at night, staying with Jordie who he got along with. This allowed time for Riley, Scout and Mike to rest and restore.
My gut had been telling me that Riley’s symptoms were caused by stress. His lungs were “depressed” as I’m certain he was, at the loss of the herd harmony. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the lungs are believed to be connected to emotions of grief, sadness, and detachment. It all lined up. We stopped the Zrytec as it didn’t seem to be helping. I released him from his responsibility, asking him to focus on healing himself, and we stopped the integration. Riley’s recovery was swift after that. His energy returned and his cough subsided. Three days later we looked down from the house and saw him playing all by himself in the paddock. He was rolling our plastic “safety” barrel across the paddock, trying to stand it up on end and bouncing it around. My horse was back!
This was a lesson in listening to my intuition and realizing how especially volatile sensitive horses can be. If your horse begins experiencing troubling physical symptoms that seem mysterious to you and your vet, try checking in with your gut and your heart. Sit in quiet meditation with your horse. Open yourself up, allowing pictures, thoughts or feelings to be exchanged. Consider that environmental changes, changes in herd dynamics and or human interactions, can affect our horse’s physical well-being. Just like humans, mental and emotional stress can manifest itself in physical ways with our horses. Always seek the help of professionals but count yourself in as an important part of the team. Listen to you your gut and listen to your horse.