You hear your horse coughing, now what?
Is your horse sick or is there another cause for coughs that didn’t occur previously?
Knowing the signs of what causes a horse to cough is something every horse owner should know.
Saying that, I created this guide to the different coughs; I hope you find it helpful.
ALSO CHECK: Horse Mating Patterns
What Are The Different Types of Horse Coughs?
While hearing a horse cough doesn’t mean there is something seriously wrong it can also indicate illness, sometimes serious that requires veterinary attention.
The odd, infrequent cough is usually nothing to worry about but if it is unusual for your horse or seems to become persistent then it is time to take a closure look.
For the most part, the sound of a horse’s cough sounds somewhat dry or hacking. It can then be louder in more severe cases.
There are several different types of horse coughs, so first let’s take a look at what they are before diving deeper into the causes.
1. During Riding
Why is my horse coughing when I ride? Some horses will cough at the beginning of a ride. Often this is just the increase in activity loosening some dust or mucus in the airways.
In these cases, the horse might only cough once or twice. While this still isn’t normal, as most horses don’t do this, it usually isn’t a reason for major concern. This is usually a dry cough.
However, you should mention it to your vet regardless, so they can investigate if there is anything more serious going on. Particularly, if your horse has started doing this when it never did before.
If your horse coughs throughout the ride instead of just a couple at the start, it is of more concern. You should stop the ride and contact your vet to take a look.
2. While Eating
A horse coughing while eating is a reason for concern. This can indicate a piece of food that has gotten stuck and can indicate a choking episode. In some areas, this is called ‘choke’
A horse with a choke will become very uncomfortable and will start to have discharge from its nostrils. While a horse won’t die quickly, like a person choking, it is still an emergency.
You must call the vet to come straight away for a choke so they can clear the blockage. Choke can cause aspiration pneumonia, which is very serious.
Another less serious cough in a horse can also occur while eating. With this type, the horse simply coughs but is not showing signs of discomfort or discharge from the nose.
However, with both types of coughs, you should investigate the cause, which can be anything from dental problems, infection, abscesses, or problems with the particular feed.
3. Cough With Mucus
A horse coughing up mucus is not something you should ignore. It is a wet cough with thick yellow or greenish mucus. It is a sign of respiratory infection and inflammation. Thinner mucus can indicate an allergy.
This type of cough in horses is often accompanied by mucus discharge from the nostrils.
4. After Shipping
When a horse starts coughing after shipping, even if it was a short journey make sure to look into it further. Because they can’t put their head down when in a trailer the drainage that should happen from their airways can’t
This means that dust and other debris can get stuck in their upper airways leading to an infection called Shipping Fever. Shipping Fever is a type of bacterial pneumonia and is very serious.
It requires a physical examination and treatment from the vet immediately. Another post-traveling cough can come about because your horse picked up a virus at a horse show or was exposed to other horses that spread it.
5. Random Cough
Sometimes a horse just coughs for no apparent reason. They might be in their stall or paddock and you hear a cough.
This occasional cough might be nothing more than a little dust but if it seems to happen more than usual it is a good idea to take a closure look.
6. Young Horse Cough
Young horses coughing is always a cause for concern. They are more prone to bacterial and viral infections due to their immature immune systems.
They are also more prone to problems from parasites, particularly the roundworm, Ascarids, when they are under two years old. After this age, they develop immunity to this particular parasite. 
READ MORE: How Much Alfalfa Pellets to Feed a Horse Per Day?
What Causes a Horse To Cough?
Why is my horse coughing? Coughing is always something a horse owner should investigate and is a sign of respiratory infection.
Sometimes it is remedied with some management changes, while other times it is a sign of illness or an underlying condition.
Now that you know the types of horse coughs, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what is causing them.
Dust for horses isn’t great for their respiratory system. However, while some horses cope find with moderate dust exposure others are very sensitive to it and develop a cough from inflammatory conditions.
One of the most common ways dust causes sensitive horses to cough is when it is from hay. The dust particles enter the otherwise healthy airway causing irritation. Ideally, you want to feed your horse hay with as little dust as possible.
When a horse has this problem, you will notice them coughing after you’ve fed hay. There are a couple of solutions to this:
- See if you can obtain hay with less dust.
- Wet the hay before you feed it
- Always feed the hay from the ground so the irritants don’t get stuck in the airways
- Invest in a hay steamer. Haygain makes an excellent one but they aren’t cheap
Check out this video to see how the Haygain steamer works.
Just like with people, pneumonias are severe lung infections. It can make your horse very sick and can only be treated with antibiotics and other veterinary treatments.
A horse can suffer from different types of pneumonia:
I mentioned this already as it is a potential risk of choke. This pneumonia is caused when a foreign material enters the lungs. In addition to choke, foals can suffer this from the birthing process.
It happens when they inhale fluids from their sac as they are born. They can also aspirate on milk when nursing if they have another issue such as a cleft palate.
This type of pneumonia has a poor outlook with a high death rate, even with the best treatment. 
This is a type of pneumonia that not only affects the lungs but also the lining that sits between the lungs and the chest wall. This is called the pleural lining. It is a bacterial infection.
If you are not squeamish, check out this video of a horse with pleuropneumonia getting a chest tube to drain fluid from its chest.
This is the least serious type of pneumonia but it is still bad news. It is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation in the lungs and bronchial passages.
Heaves is the horse version of asthma. It is sometimes called equine asthma. Heaves is more commonly found in adult horses over the age of 8. It develops after prolonged, in many cases years, exposure to dust.
Asthmatic horses will show signs of breathing difficulties, especially during exercise, hot weather, or times of high pollen counts.
Kansas City University Veterinary Health Center says:
“Heaves (recurrent airway obstruction, COPD, broken wind, emphysema) is a common, performance-limiting, allergic respiratory disease of horses characterized by chronic cough, nasal discharge, and respiratory difficulty.” 
For these horses, once you have a diagnosis, you need to keep their environment and food as dust-free as possible. Keeping the dust level low, will ease the symptoms but not cure the disease.
There are two main herpesviruses that affect horses and cause coughing – EHV-1 and EHV-4. Another name for it is Rhinopneumonitis. However, most equestrians will be familiar with the EHV names.
This virus creates cold like symptoms in the horse. Breeding studs take it seriously as it can cause mares to abort the foals they are carrying.
It can also cause a fever, snotty nose, and lethargy that most horses can recover from with the help of the vet. However, it has a very nasty side.
Some cases turn into life-threatening situations where the horse has neurological symptoms. During one of the show jumping winter tours in Spain, 2021 there was a big outbreak of EHV-1 on the show grounds.
Several horses presented with neurological symptoms and sadly a number lost their lives.
You can check out this video for more info.
This is basically horse flu and is viral. It has similar symptoms to a horse cold, as I talked about above. It causes inflammation throughout the horse’s respiratory system. It can even affect the heart.
Horses with influenza will cough, have a temperature, a loss of appetite and be fairly miserable. It is pretty obvious that they have some level of respiratory distress.
It is very contagious and can easily spread through a barn. Luckily, there is a vaccination available that can prevent it or lessen its severity.
When equestrians hear the word strangles it strikes fear into them. It is a nasty infection caused by Streptococcus equi bacteria.
It causes abscesses around the head which are pretty unpleasant and can obstruct breathing. They usually burst out of the skin or internally, draining thick, gross puss.
Strangles is highly contagious and any barn affected must report it and go under quarantine. Horses with strangles must receive veterinary attention and lots of nursing from their owner.
When traveling horses undergo increased stress. Over long distances, this stress is prolonged with can compromise their immune system. Also, horses, unless shipping in a box stall, can’t put their heads down enough.
This leads to debris and bacteria getting trapped in the trachea and lungs. It is important to spot this as soon as possible so the vet can start treatment.
Certain parasites can cause coughing. These include lungworm and the equine roundworm. Roundworm usually only affects younger horses as they gain immunity as they get older.
How To Treat a Horse With a Cough and Runny Nose?
Many of the horse cough causes above include a runny nose. The treatment will depend on the specific cause.
First, make sure the horse is in a dry place outside of the wet and cold. It is important that they have a comfortable place to rest. Also, try to minimize their exposure to dust or any irritants that can make the symptoms worse.
After evaluation from your vet, you might have to administer antibiotics that come in the form of powders, liquids, and injections.
A horse with compromised breathing might also need steroids to help control the inflammation and help the horse breathe better.
Sometimes, the vet might also recommend giving your horse Banamine or bute.
When I have a horse with a ‘dirty’ nose, I like to have baby wipes on hand to regularly wipe their nostrils. While this doesn’t solve the problem, I like to think it helps make that horse a little more comfortable.
Horses that have had the flu take at least three weeks to recover after symptoms have gone as their respiratory tract needs time to fully heal.
Finally, always bring your horse back to work slowly after an illness that has affected its respiratory system.
Horse Coughing Remedies
Horse coughing remedies require supportive care. So what to give a horse with a cough? Let’s take a look.
Things you can do include mild exercise such as time in the paddock if the weather is ok or hand walking outside.
This can help loosen up mucus and aid draining.
For horses with dust allergies or heaves keep them in the least dusty environment possible. This can include wetting or steaming their hay, using low dust shavings, and allowing them as much time outside as possible.
Nebulizers also can help horses with heaves and other problems that cause coughing. Finally, before I get to medication from your vet, there are some supplements you can use that can help with your horse’s cough.
For bacterial infections, your vet will probably prescribe antibiotics. There are several different ones and what one is best will depend on the specific illness and the personality of your horse.
That is, a horse that won’t eat anything with extras added might be better off getting injections. While horses that are hard to give a shot might be ok to get an antibiotic in their feed.
For more mysterious coughs a vet will want to do an endoscopy to evaluate what’s going on inside. Some horse owners like to treat coughs with herbs. This is fine but don’t use it instead of vet treatment and always discuss it with them first.
For additional, natural remedies check out is honey good for horses?
For more education about horse coughs, check out this short lecture from a vet on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of respiratory disease in horses
Can worms cause a horse to cough?
Yes, worms can cause a horse to cough, particularly lungworms and roundworms.
Will honey help a horse’s cough?
Yes, some equestrians find that honey helps soothe a horse’s cough.
Should you ride a horse with a cough?
No, you should not ride a horse with a regular cough or if they are sick. The only exceptions are for horses that might cough once or twice at the beginning or exercise or if the vet says it’s ok after looking at the horse.
I hope that my horse coughing guide has helped you understand the potential causes and what you can do if your horse shows this symptom. I’ve dealt with coughs many times.
I always find the young horses pick up something every winter, not much different than human kids! But for the most part with the right treatment, they will recover.
If you have any questions or experiences of dealing with a horse that coughs, I’d love to hear your stories. Please share them in the comments.
- 1. Rounding up roundworms: Smart parasitology control for foals and young horses [Internet]. DVM 360. Available from: https://www.dvm360.com/view/rounding-roundworms-smart-parasitology-control-foals-and-young-horses
- 2. Scott PR. Aspiration Pneumonia in Horses [Internet]. MSD Veterinary Manual. MSD Veterinary Manual; 2019. Available from: https://www.msdvetmanual.com/horse-owners/lung-and-airway-disorders-of-horses/aspiration-pneumonia-in-horses
- 3. Heaves [Internet]. www.ksvhc.org. [cited 2022 Aug 25]. Available from: https://www.ksvhc.org/services/equine/internal-medicine/heaves.html#:~:text=Heaves%20(recurrent%20airway%20obstruction%2C%20COPD
Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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