Once the Smoke Clears: A Guide to Safely Start Working and Riding Your Horse

The first blue sky following the gray smoky ash ridden air is not when to ride.  We all want to start riding and working our horses.  But we need to be smart about reintroducing horses to work.  Horses have been exposed to smoke and ash over the duration of the wildfires.  Even in barns, they are breathing the same air quality as outside (unless you have an enclosed barn with a HVAC or closed air circulation). 

During this exposure, horses are breathing in ash and particulates that lodge in their upper airway and down into their lungs.  Deep breathing during exercise or playing at turnout will draw the foreign particulates deeper into the lung.  The more particulate that is drawn deep into the lung, the longer their recovery may take.  This is why it has been advised to keep horses as quiet as possible while still keeping them comfortable in a turnout or pasture. 

What counts as clean air?

The air quality index (AQI) needs to be monitored to determine if the air is becoming cleaner and we can start our countdown to riding once again.  The AQI needs to be consistently below 100 throughout a 24-hour period to be counted as a “clean air day”.  The number of clean air days are what we will be using to establish the horse’s recovery schedule. 

Clean air…

Once clean air is consistently below 100, horses should be allowed to rest in a turnout or pasture for a minimum of 7 days.  No work or running around, just relaxing.  The length of this rest-only period will be dependent upon the time spent and the severity of smoke and ash exposure.  The other major factor to consider is whether the horse has a preexisting respiratory condition such as heaves or EIPH (bleeders) as this will likely increase the length of the rest-only phase.  Talk with your veterinarian frequently regarding when to safely bring a horse back to work.  During this time their body is working to clear the lungs of particulates, especially those that have lodged deep in the lungs. 

Once 7 days of clean air has been achieved there are several options for bringing your horse back in to work.  The option you choose will depend upon several factors:

  • Health of the horse prior to the poor air quality caused by smoke and ash
  • Length of time the horse is exposed to the smoke and ash
  • Severity of the air quality
  • Preexisting respiratory conditions
  • Fitness of the horse prior to the poor air quality

If at any time your horse develops signs of respiratory distress stop working and contact your veterinarian.

  • Coughing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Increased respiratory rate not affiliated with the work/gait
  • Excessive reluctance to work

It is advised to thoroughly wash horses prior to riding to avoid skin irritation from the ash residue. 

The attached graphs provide three different timing options depending on horse health status.  If not sure which option to choose, consult your veterinarian.

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