What is roaring in horses? And how can it be fixed?

Tambourine Girl Racing
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When cantering and galloping a horse’s breathing is linked to their strides, they take one breath for each stride. During fast work their air flow, the amount of air they are breathing in and out, can be as high as 80 litres a second. With their breathing and strides being so closely linked, it isn’t surprising that potentially minor respiratory issues can affect a horse’s performance in intense work. 

Roaring, whistling and other wind issues in horses

Horses with a problem with their respiratory system are often referred to as roaring or whistling. This is because when they are in fast work they make a funny noise which can sound a bit like they are roaring or whistling. These horses may also be described as having wind issues. 

Most wind issues are usually caused by changes to the larynx. The larynx sits at the top of the windpipe and while it has a few jobs, it’s main role is to stop food getting into the windpipe. It closes when the horse swallows and opens wide when the horse is working hard. The larynx is controlled by the laryngeal nerve. When the nerve becomes damaged, it causes one side of the larynx to become paralysed. The paralysed side of the larynx blocks some of the airflow which can vibrate and create the roaring noise

roaring horse with paralyzed larynx
Credit: South West Veterinary Group

Some issues are caused by the soft palate. The soft palate is a floppy piece of tissue at the roof of the mouth made up of a layer of muscle and a layer of mucous membrane. In hard exercise the muscle become tired and wobbly. It can block airflow and in some cases lift so that the horse is breathing through it’s mouth rather than it’s nose. The horse often really quickly slows down and might make a gurgling noise. But once they slow down and swallow it will return to normal, making it difficult to diagnose without scoping during exercise.  

Not usually an issue for lighter work loads 

For many horses, having this condition isn’t a problem. It shouldn’t affect the everyday riding horse or dressage horse. It tends to be more of an issue for horses doing lots of fast work like racehorses, eventers and polo ponies where their performance is more likely to be affected.  

Treatment Options 

There are a few different treatments available depending on what is causing the wind problem. 

Laryngeal Issues 

Hobday 

In a Hobday the left vocal cord and sac behind it are removed, therefore removing the thing what is causing the blockage. Traditionally this was done under general anaesthetic and a scalpel, but recent technology now means this can be done using an endoscopic laser. 

Tie Back 

As the name suggests, a Tie Back involved stitching the paralysed side of the larynx to the side so that it cannot cause a blockage. This tends to be the more successful of the two options, but can lead to the horse coughing due to food going into the windpipe and the stitches can become loose over time.  

Soft Palate Issues 

Unlike laryngeal issues, soft palate issues are often caused by other things. An unfit or growing horse, or anything else what may affect a horse’s performance might cause soft palate issue. So there are non-surgical options available first. 

Soft Palate Cautery 

This is the most common option in the UK and involved burning the soft palate to great scar tissue, what is stiffer and less likely to move. This treatment is fairly low risk and easy to perform and the horse can return to training quickly afterwards, usually with an improvement. However, the results can be short lived with it needing to be repeated in the future. 

Tie Forward 

As the name suggests, this procedure involves pulling the larynx forward, over the soft palate blocking it from lifting up. 

Chez Hans 

You may remember that Chez Hans had two cracking races on the flat since racing resumed. But after a disappointing run back out over hurdles where he just didn’t seem to stay on towards the end, he is going for a wind op. He is having his soft palate cauterised to hopefully help his breathing. This is quite a minor surgery/treatment and he will probably be back in light work within a few weeks. It will probably be a few months before we see him back on the track, but after a few races we should hopefully see him staying on much better in the final stages. 

Chez Hans at the races
Chez Hans

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