We didn’t have a car in my family until I was 12 years old. It was a big green Buick with plenty of miles on it. She was the first of several used cars. Every few years the current one would start to fail, and my father would go out and start kicking tires. I’d try to steer him toward the chromed models with the good looking paint jobs. He would say, “A good coat of paint can hide a multitude of sins.” So he’d look a little deeper. The hood would get opened to see if the motor might be older than what the odometer showed. Down he’d go on his back to slide under the car and check out the vehicle’s frame. Finally he’d settle on some not so fancy transportation that would usually prove to be pretty dependable. We all set out to buy cars with an idea of what we want. At the same time, there is wisdom in knowing what to avoid.
Buying horses is a good deal like buying used cars. You have to look beneath the shiny hair coat and long pedigree to make sure you aren’t purchasing tomorrow’s problem. I’m speaking of looking specifically of very fundamental problems that will cause you nothing but heartache and money down the road. If you find a bent frame under a used car, you should pass. The car has been in an accident and probably won’t hold the road correctly. At the very least, you’ll go through more tires than you should. You can consider some problems in horses as “bent frames.” One of these problems is the respiratory condition called “heaves.” The official name is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Whatever name you use, it’s a heartbreaking situation that is similar to emphysema in people. My understanding is that at least 90% of COPD in people is caused by smoking. In horses at least 90% is caused by moldy hay fed to horses in barns with poor ventilation. In COPD the lungs have lost a good deal of their capacity and most of their elasticity. Breathing becomes a real effort, and ultimately the horse becomes a respiratory cripple.
There is a way to spot this problem without a stethoscope. If you are like me, you like to size a horse up generally before getting down to details. Stand at least ten feet back to get a whole body appreciation. You don’t need to be any closer to spot a horse with heaves. Normally the act of breathing should be effortless, with a natural and easy rhythm. Heavey horses literally struggle to exhale. They get most of the air out, but have to give an extra push to get the rest out. This type of breathing is called a double lift. When the problem is well established, affected horses have little time to do anything but breathe.
Months of COPD breathing will cause an overdevelopment of the muscles along the rib cage. This inappropriate long muscle bulge is called a heave line. Heavey horses tire easily and often have coughing spells. They can’t take a full breath, so they have to take many more breaths per minute to get enough oxygen. A normal horse will take
8-15 breaths per minute when at rest. The heavey horse will almost pant at 30-60 breaths per minute. They struggle with every breath. When a horse has advanced heaves, you can hear a crackling noise coming from the lungs if you put your ear near the horse’s nose or use a stethoscope over the lungs. There are some visuals of heavey horses on You Tube. To bring them up, Google “Heavey Horses aka COPD.”
I recommend a veterinary check before you buy any horse. However, heaves is one of those “bent frames” situations that you can spot yourself. Even if you love
everything else about this animal, my advice would be not to buy. The animal will eventually not be able to do anything beyond a walk without wheezing. He or she will
have an increasingly hard time breathing as time goes on. Watching them suffer is no fun. There are medications that help and environmental changes that can be made, but there is no cure for heaves.
In a subsequent article I will explore a couple of more easily spotted “bent frames” that should raise a red flag for you.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM