Coughing during warmup?

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Any horse can cough during warmup. Especially if it’s hot, dry, or dusty. But what if the horse always coughs during warmup, just at the beginning? Is that normal?

Julie was telling me about her horse, “Cal”, as we walked down the aisleway. We could see Cal ahead, sticking his chestnut head over the door and nickering.

“Cal is mostly stiff, that’s why I called you,” Julie said. “But I’m starting to wonder if I should start him on some cough medicine, or maybe herbs.”

“Oh, has he picked up a flu-bug?” I asked.

Julie replied, “No, he always coughs. But only during warm up before we ride. The weather doesn’t matter. He coughs and coughs and coughs until he sneezes. Then he’s done.”

The sneezing was a new one for me. I’ve certainly heard of horses who cough as they warm up. Cal’s sneezing at the end was a fun variation.

Some horses occasionally cough during warmup. But that’s usually in a dry, dusty arena, so it makes sense.

It is not normal for a horse to always cough during warmup. What can it be?

Surprisingly, it’s usually not their lungs.

If the lungs were a primary cause, then the horse would cough more often than just during warmup.

Most common causes of warmup cough

  • Sternum misalignment
  • Hyoid misalignment
  • Neck misalignment
  • Liver flukes (yeah, that’s weird, right?)

Horses with the above misalignments are not getting air correctly to their lungs.

A crooked sternum compresses one of the lungs. Hyoid misalignment interferes with airflow down the trachea. And neck misalignment makes it harder to move air in or out.

Liver flukes, a type of parasite, can also make a horse cough during warmup. I don’t know the mechanism of action, but if you’ve done everything else, you can ask your vet for a fluke test.

There’s always a reason for unusual behaviors our horses do. Just got to keep looking.

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