Given that aerobic metabolism is the predominant energy pathway for most sports, the respiratory system can be a rate-limiting factor in the exercise capacity of fit and healthy horses. Consequently, respiratory diseases, even in mild forms, are potentially deleterious to any athletic performance. The functional impairment associated with a respiratory condition depends on the degree of severity of the disease and the equestrian discipline involved. Respiratory abnormalities generally result in an increase in respiratory impedance and work of breathing and a reduced level of ventilation that can be detected objectively by deterioration in breathing mechanics and arterial blood gas tensions and/or lactataemia. The overall prevalence of airway diseases is comparatively high in equine athletes and may affect the upper airways, lower airways or both. Diseases of the airways have been associated with a wide variety of anatomical and/or inflammatory conditions. In some instances, the diagnosis is challenging because conditions can be subclinical in horses at rest and become clinically relevant only during exercise. In such cases, an exercise test may be warranted in the evaluation of the patient. The design of the exercise test is critical to inducing the clinical signs of the problem and establishing an accurate diagnosis. Additional diagnostic techniques, such as airway sampling, can be valuable in the diagnosis of subclinical lower airway problems that have the capacity to impair performance. As all these techniques become more widely used in practice, they should inevitably enhance veterinarians' diagnostic capabilities and improve their assessment of treatment effectiveness and the long-term management of equine athletes.