A Trachea Scope

During August I had a slightly concerning time with Phoenix. She was doing well under saddle, but something wasn’t quite right and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the result was that I was riding cautiously, and I felt that Phoenix was quite flat when I rode her. I was carrying her around the second test at competitions, and after jumps she readily fell to walk unless I actively rode her away.

There was nothing to see, she moved well. Then I wondered if she wasn’t fit enough, so I upped her canter work. One day in mid August I took her for a canter around the fields, which she was most definitely up for, pulling my arms out my sockets on the way home. But she was puffing away for significantly longer afterwards than normal. Then a few days later she was breathing very heavily during a dressage lesson and I could only do short bursts of work before letting her rest, nostrils flaring.

I monitored her closely for a few days; there weren’t any clinical signs at rest, no coughing, breathing rate was normal, and she recovered quickly after exercise, but she was definitely “puffy” and flat in her work.

So I called the vet, who came a week later to check her over. In the very least, Phoenix would get an MOT and my mind laid to rest. The vet listened to her heart and lungs in the stable, declaring them problem free. Then I lunged her.

As is typical when you have the vet, Phoenix looked slightly off on the left fore when I lunged her. Not hugely concerning to the vet, but it was flagged up. However, Phoenix did show an “intolerance to exercise” which concerned the vet.

We decided to rest Phoenix for a week to hopefully resolve the mild lameness, and see if a rest caused her respiration to sort itself out. A week passed and Phoenix was sound, but I still wasn’t happy with her breathing, so I booked the vet to scope her trachea so we could see if there were any issues, and take a sample of the cells to test for abnormalities.

I found the experience fascinating and really educational. Phoenix was sedated, and then a thin tube with a camera was pushed up one nostril. At the end of the tube was a box, held by the vet. This had a screen, showing an image of her trachea from the camera, and some knobs to control the angle of the camera.

The vet showed me Phoenix’s larynx, and explained that she was looking at the movement of the arytenoid tendons to see that they’re both opening and closing evenly and fully. It is fairly common for horses to have a mildly paralysed left arytenoid cartilage, causing them to “roar”. You may have heard of the “tie-back operation” which is often done to improve the performance of sufferers. Thankfully, Phoenix’s larynx looked very healthy and fully functional.

I then got to slowly push the tube further down Phoenix’s trachea, while the vet controlled the camera, studying the screen intently. Again, her trachea looked healthy. There was no obvious mucus, no inflammation.

The next job was to take a fluid sample from her trachea. This was really interesting! The vet syringed some water down the tube so that it formed a puddle in her trachea. Then the syringe was used to suck the liquid back up.

The liquid which came back from Phoenix’s windpipe was unexpectedly dirty given her mild symptoms, so the vet sent the sample to the lab to be analysed for signs of infection and abnormalities.

In the meantime, we discussed potential management techniques to help improve Phoenix’s respiratory health. Things like soaking hay, dust free bedding, maximise turnout, different drug options including Ventapulmin and steroids.

Two days later I spoke to the vet. To her surprise, the samples had come back clear. Which didn’t really solve the mystery of why she was puffing when being ridden. Apart from the fact that she had lost fitness with me riding more cautiously and backing off her exercise. But at least I now know that there isn’t anything seriously wrong with Phoenix.

The scoping gave me the confidence to start pushing Phoenix’s fitness and work intensity, because her respiratory system is healthy. I’m still concerned that she had some form of reaction mid August, perhaps a low level virus or to a type of pollen, but as there are no long term symptoms I’ll just have to keep a close eye on her at that time next year to see if she has a similar flat, puffy phase. Then I can liaise directly with the vet, picking up where we left off this autumn.

Whether it’s the change in weather – wetter, less humid, less pollen – or the fact that with better ground I’ve taken her for a couple of pipe openers around the fields and cleared her lungs of any muck, but Phoenix has been coping better with exercise, and although not her usual sharp self (perhaps she’s grown up?) she’s still forwards in her work and not trying to fall into walk after a couple of jumps.

To some, I may have overreacted to Phoenix’s mild symptoms and overthought things, but getting her an MOT has allowed me to push aside doubts and ride more positively, which has broken the cycle of doubt where I don’t ride positively so Phoenix doesn’t go positively… And now we’re back on track!

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