In human subjects that exercise strenuously in cold weather, there is evidence that hyperventilation with cold air leads to peripheral airway cooling, desiccation and mucosal injury. Our hypothesis was that hyperventilation with cold air can result in penetration of unconditioned air (air that is not completely warmed and humidified) into the peripheral airways of exercising horses, resulting in peripheral airway mucosal injury. To test this hypothesis, a thermister-tipped catheter was inserted through the midcervical trachea and advanced into a sublobar bronchus in three horses that cantered on a treadmill at 6.6 m/s while breathing cold (5°C) air. The mean (± s.e.) intra-airway temperature during cantering was 33.3 ± 0.4°C, a value comparable to the bronchial lumen temperatures measured in man during maximal exercise while breathing subfreezing dry air. In a second experiment, 6 fit Thoroughbred racehorses with satisfactory performance were used to determine whether strenuous exercise in cold conditions can produce airway injury. Horses were assigned to Exercise (E) or Control (C) groups in a random crossover design. Samples of bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) in the E treatment were recovered within 30 min of galloping exercise in 4°C, 100% relative humidity (E), while in C BALF samples were obtained when the horses had not performed any exercise for at least 48 h prior. Ciliated epithelial cells in BALF were higher in E than in the C treatment. Similar results have been found in human athletes and laboratory animal models of cold weather exercise. These results support the hypothesis that, similar to man, horses that exercise in cold weather experience peripheral airway mucosal injury due to the penetration of unconditioned air.
Furthermore, these results suggest that airway cooling and desiccation may be a factor in airway inflammation commonly found in equine athletes.