respiratory system

Understanding Your Horse’s Respiratory System

By Wendy Talbot on 13 July 2018

The horse’s respiratory system is extremely efficient but also highly sensitive and susceptible to many diseases. Infectious respiratory disease is in fact a significant cause of horses being ‘off work’.  If the air can’t get in and out effectively then the vital organs and muscles cannot perform to optimum capacity.

What is the respiratory tract?

The respiratory tract is the term used to describe all the organs and structures related to breathing. It is divided into upper and lower sections. The upper respiratory tract includes the horse’s nostrils, the pharynx (throat) and the larynx (voice box), the trachea (wind pipe) while the lower section comprises the bronchi, which branch out from the end of the windpipe to supply air to the left and right lungs, and the lungs themselves.

What compromises the respiratory system? 

Horses are designed to breathe fresh air all the time but given the general preference to keep horses stabled, this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The environment can compromise the respiratory system, as can our demands on our horses in terms of athletic performance. However many diseases can be easily prevented or managed effectively to keep horses healthy.

Did you know?

  • A horse inhales up to 60 litres of air per minute when at rest.
  • During peak exercise this can increase to around 2,260 litres per minute.
  • A cantering or galloping horse can only take one breath every stride, no matter how fast he is moving.
  • A horse’s respiratory exchange surface is estimated to be around 2,500m2, while a cow has a quarter of this surface.


The BHS Veterinary Manual P Stewart Hastie MRCVS



Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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