Boosting Your Horse's Health This Winter

Your horse's immune system helps protect him from harmful pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and in order to do this, the immune system is made up of an extremely complex number of cells, tissues and organs, all of which work together to keep your horse healthy.

However, factors such as stress, aging and poor nutrition can compromise your horse's immune system, meaning that he is at increased risk of illness and disease.

In people it is known that cold weather during the winter increases the risk of catching the common cold! Your horse may also be more prone to developing problems such as coughs and respiratory infections during the winter. In part, this may be due to the limited access to fresh grass, which supplies dietary antioxidants. Antioxidants play an important role in the immune system helping to neutralise free radicals, which cause oxidative stress. Research has shown that horses suffering from respiratory problems suffer from increased levels of oxidative stress. 1 Hay and haylage are low in antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium, so to ensure your horse receives optimal antioxidant support this winter you must feed a balanced concentrate feed that contains good levels of the antioxidants.

Your horse's respiratory health will also not be helped by the fact that much of the hay produced in the UK is dusty. It has been estimated that in a stable environment there may be as many as 3,000 respirable particles (e.g. dust and mould spores) per ml of air. 2 This will place an enormous challenge on your horse’s respiratory system, therefore it is a good idea to get your hay tested for the presence of harmful fungal or mould spores. If high levels are found, research has shown that soaking your hay for 30 min will decrease the amount by 88%. 3

Herbs could also help boost your horse’s immune system this winter. Echinacea is a herb from the daisy family that has been used for centuries for its medicinal qualities. American Indians used it to help heal wounds and infections and it was frequently included in medicines in the early 20th century. Using Echinacea to boost the immune system is not simply an 'old wives tale', as scientific research is now proving.

Research in people has shown that taking Echinacea more than halves the risk of catching a cold. Even when they were inoculated with a virus that causes cold, taking Echinacea reduced the incidence by 35%.4 Echinacea supplements have also been proven to help reduce the duration of cold symptoms by 1½ days.4 So, next time you are worried that you might catch a cold try taking some Echinacea! Your horse can also benefit from an Echinacea supplement. Research published in the Equine Veterinary Journal has shown that it helps increase the number of lymphocytes in your horse’s body.5 These specialised cells direct the body's immune system to help fight off illness and disease. Feeding Echinacea to horses has also been shown to increase the ability of neutrophils to protect against bacterial and fungal infection.5

You can help keep your horse’s immune system in 'tip-top' health this winter by firstly making sure you feed a concentrate feed with optimal levels of antioxidants. Secondly, test your hay for mould and dust particles (for more details visit www.dodsonandhorrellpetfood.co.uk/horse-feed/forage-analysis) and finally – why not add some Dodson & Horrell Echinacea to his feed every day.

Foot notes:

  1. Art, T., Kirschvink, N., Smith, N. and Lekeux, P. (1999), Indices of oxidative stress in blood and pulmonary epithelium lining fluid in horses suffering from recurrent airway obstruction. Equine Veterinary Journal, 31: 397–401.
  2. Woods, P. S. A., Robinson, N. E., Swanson, M. C., Reed, C. E., Broadstone, R. V. and Derksen, F. J. (1993), Airborne dust and aeroallergen concentration in a horse stable under two different management systems. Equine Veterinary Journal, 25: 208–213.

  3. Moore-Colyer M. J. S. (1996). Effects of soaking hay fodder for horses on dust and mineral content. Animal Science, 63: 337-342

  4. Shah S.A, Sander S, White C.M, Rinaldi M, Coleman C.I.

    References and further reading may be available for this article. To view references and further reading you must purchase this article.
    Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis.The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Volume 7, Issue 9, Page 580, September 2007.

  5. O'Neill W, McKee S, Clarke A. F.Immunological and haematinic consequences of feeding a standardised Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) extract to healthy horses. Equine Veterinary Journal. Volume 34, Issue 3, pages 222–227, May 2002.