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12 Simple Tips for Horse Allergies and Asthma Triggered by Horses

When I was growing up as a horse-crazy girl in the Midwest in the 1980’s, one of my mother’s default responses to my pleas for horseback riding lessons was to tell me that I could have a horse when I paid for my own inhalers- which is exactly what I did! In this article, I’m sharing some tips from my experience as both a riding coach and a person with asthma triggered by (most) horses and nasal allergies to (most) horses.

Understanding Allergies to Horses

Medical science and even our everyday understanding of how allergies occur have changed a lot since the folklore remedies my father grew up with as a horse-allergic boy on a farm in the 1950s. Despite this, myths and misunderstandings about allergies and being allergic to horses persist. For academic research journal sources supporting this and other information in this article, see the references at the end of this article.

Misconception: People with horse allergies are allergic to horses.
Fact: People with horse allergies have an immune response to a set of specific proteins produced by most but not all horses.¹ Thus it is a potentially variable element of horses, rather than the horse itself, that causes allergies to horses.

12 tips for dealing with horse allergies and asthma triggered by horses.

Myth: People with horse allergies should avoid horses
Fact: People with horse allergies should discuss exposure with their doctor.² Some studies show that controlled exposures, especially when an allergy is mild, can desensitize an individual to an allergen.³

Myth: people with horse allergies are allergic to all horses
Fact: In the same way that people with dog allergies aren’t allergic to certain hypoallergenic breeds, and many Allergic individuals aren’t allergic to certain breeds (I personally begins sneezing wildly in the presence of a domestic House cat but can snuggle with a Bengal house cat with no consequences) people who are allergic to horses may find that they are extremely allergic to certain individual horses and not at all allergic to certain breeds.¹

Researchers have determined that although allergy-inducing protein production varies by breed and individual horse, several studies have determined that horses of the Bashkir Curly Horse breed produce less allergy-inducing proteins according to recent studies.¹ (Notably, one study identified no significant difference in allergens present in a sample taken from a curly horse, however, it’s unclear how researchers controlled for cross-contamination between horses or if the curly horses were identified correctly)

Hypoallergenic Horses for Horse Allergic Riders

Early in the study of what at the time was a “phenomenon” of horse allergic individuals reporting no symptoms in response to riding, petting, or even grooming Bashkir Curly horses, researchers believed it was due to the unique structure of curly horse fur.

The structural difference in the hair that made each shaft corkscrew and result in a curly, crushed velvet, or textured appearance was believed to be the reason that people who typically sneezed, had itchy eyes, or asthma symptoms in response to horses could be around these foundation Bashkir Curly horses with no symptoms. This same unique fur that could be spun into fiber art was believed to be the reason these horses seemed to produce less allergic responses.

Around the year 2000, researchers isolated the real cause of horse allergies: a series of specific proteins produced by horses. This explains why many individuals would report a huge variance in the severity of allergy symptoms from one horse to another. Like differences in hair color, hoof size, or thickness of mane, the amount of this protein that is produced by an individual horse varies by that individual horse’s genetic expression.¹

This research finally explained why so many horse allergic and horse-triggered asthmatics were able to ride and enjoy curly horses with no symptoms: curly horses, it turned out, produce far less of the specific proteins that a horse allergic person’s immune system responds to.¹

In one 2014 study, researchers testing allergic responses found that “19 of the 20 horse allergic riders did not respond significantly while [riding] Curly Horses at 212 measurements. 18 of the 20 riders did not react significantly when brushing the horses at 79 measurements.”

Cross Contamination:

[Aka: why some horse-allergic people seem to have allergies to hypoallergenic horses]

In my decade or so as a curly horse breeder and competitive rider, I encountered a handful of horse allergic people who claimed that they were allergic to Bashkir Curlies and the claim that Bashkir Curly horses were hypoallergenic was merely a hoax. While “hypoallergenic” is indeed a misnomer, you might be surprised that I never felt particularly caught off guard by these claims- why? Cross-contamination.

Sometimes allergies to horses may be reactions to allergens that the horse's fur has been contaminated by.
Sometimes allergies to horses may be reactions to allergens that the horse’s fur has been contaminated by.

Cross-contamination occurs when a sample – in this case, a hypoallergenic horse – is contaminated with particles from another sample – in this case, another allergen.

Many curly horse breeders who don’t have a complex understanding of allergens and cross-contamination may invite people with horse allergies to test out their horses without being mindful of cross-contamination. In these instances, a hopeful horse allergic person interested and riding or purchasing a curly horse might visit their farm to test their allergies and discover, with much disappointment, they have an allergic response seemingly to Bashkir Curly.

In most of these cases, however, the horse allergic person wasn’t just petting a hypoallergenic horse, they were petting a hypoallergenic horse covered with fur, dander, and protein shed by non-hypoallergenic horses that they lived with, rubbed against, and nuzzled. Additionally, the hypoallergenic horse may recently have been in laying on straw with mold particles, dusty bedding, weeds in hay, or a pasture full of grass and pollen.

For this reason, if you have the opportunity to allergy test a hypoallergenic Bashkir Curly horse (and many if not all breeders are open to facilitating this unique type of meet and greet) you first need to ask these two questions:

  1. Does this horse spend time loose with horses that are not hypoallergenic?
  2. Is this horse turned out in a pasture with native grass and weeds?

If the answer to either question is yes (and it probably will be) you can ask of the breeder to bathe the horse you’ll be meeting before you visit and to make sure that the horse is allowed to dry in a relatively low allergy area such as tied to a hitching post, loose in a dirt arena, or turned out in a weed-controlled pasture.

Testing your allergic response to a Bashkir Curly is much more reliable under these conditions.  While you can’t always guarantee that if a Bashkir Curly becomes your first horse or your riding lesson companion that they’ll always be clean, testing under these circumstances can give you a baseline and help identify your specific allergies.

Important note: you and your healthcare provider or asthma/allergy specialist are the experts on your experience and your allergies. While the notes in this article may provide some suggestions for possible ways to safely experience horses despite horse allergies, always consult your medical team before exposing yourself to known allergens.

Tips for horseback riding and horse handling for horse allergic riders and horse-triggered asthmatics

1. Check in with your allergy specialist.

Before getting involved with horses as a horse allergic individual, make sure that you’ve reviewed the risks with your healthcare provider and, if needed, have emergency medication (like a rescue inhaler or EpiPen) on hand.

2. Get a waist bag for riding.

A number of low-profile waist bags are available for hikers and runners, these are a great choice for horseback riders to keep emergency medications handy. Placing bulky items in a pocket can often be uncomfortable once you’re in the saddle, and makes essentials easier to forget at home, in your car, or along the arena sidelines. Keeping your medication in the same place, always within arms reach even if you fall off on a trail ride,  means that you and those you ride will always know where your medications are in an emergency.

3. Plan a way to change clothes before going home.

When you come home from the riding stable, have a plan for how you will minimize spreading potential allergens from the barn environments into your home. Changing your horseback ridingclothes before you leave the barn or changing just inside the door when you get home can be one way to make sure that allergies are not triggered by what you bring home to your home environment.

4. Seek out a hypoallergenic horse.

Although Bashkir Curly’s are more common than they used to be, they’re still relatively unusual and may require some shopping around, waiting, or traveling to purchase a curly horse from another state.

If you’re a rider who is not quite ready for their first horse, ask your riding instructor, local veterinarians, or riding clubs if they know of any curly horse owners in the area. Sharing a horse – called a half lease- allows a rider to ride a horse on certain days as if it were their own. This arrangement is an increasingly common practice especially in the United Kingdom and suburban areas of the United States. A half lease arrangement may make it possible for you to ride a curly horse in horseback riding lessons, on trail rides, and even in horse shows without the commitment of owning a horse.

5. Wear a mask.

These days, we all have a few masks on hand, and the same masks that can reduce the spread of airborne pathogens work great for reducing exposure to allergens in a horse farm. Whether you are a multi-allergic rider on a hypoallergenic horse trying to control your exposure to dust, mold, and hey particles, or if you are riding a non-hypoallergenic horse and trying to reduce the amount of dander you are exposed to, masks can help.

If you wear a mask while horseback riding, make sure that you remove it in a well-ventilated area without touching the exterior of the mask, to avoid secondary exposure.

Closeup image of a person brushing a white horse.
You may need to wear a mask while grooming your horse.

6. Skip horse grooming unless you have a hypoallergenic horse and minimize cross-contamination.

Grooming is an integral part of learning to ride and care for a horse, but if you have an allergy to horses, using a brush to sweep all that dust, fur, and dander airborne is a recipe for an allergic response or allergy attack. Instead, experiment with what you can handle. Some horse allergic riders may be able to groom a horse outdoors or while wearing a cloth mask or an N95 mask, while other riders may need to arrange to have their horse groomed for them.

7. To minimize horse allergies, ride outdoors

Indoor horse arenas, especially indoor riding arenas with stalls placed on one or both sides can be the worst place to ride if you have allergies to horses. In indoor arenas, the air is often thick with dust, dander, and fur- which for many horse allergic individuals (including myself!) can lead to a severe reaction with only minimal exposure.

Instead, try to ride outdoors whenever possible either in an outdoor riding arena, trails, or covered arenas that have open-air sides. Although these can be chillier in the winter, the improved ventilation means fewer allergens in each breath.

8. Never ride alone.

A good idea for all riders, horseback riders with allergies and especially those with asthma triggered by horses should never ride on their own. In addition to regular safety like always wearing a helmet, if you have horse allergies make sure that when you ride there’s always someone nearby who will notice if you begin to have a severe response and who knows how to help and where to find your medication.

9. Don’t keep your allergies a secret

It may be tempting to want to minimize your allergies to avoid the discomfort or potential rejection of disclosing the fact that you have allergies or asthma that are triggered by horses, but it’s really important that your riding instructor, trainer, barn manager, and others know about your allergies.

If you have a hypoallergenic horse and can’t handle other horses, you may have to explain that you can’t simply do them a favor by handling their horse in a crunch, and if you aren’t able to groom your mount it’s not because you’re lazy or overly prim, but due to a medical cause.

Communicate the plan that you and your healthcare provider have established and informed the people you ride with where you keep your medication and what the plan is an emergency.

10. Have your meds and nonpharmaceutical treatments at hand

Having your medication like inhalers, nasal spray, or antihistamines handy is essential. Most asthma and allergy sufferers, however, have a few extra non-pharmaceutical toosl they can use in addition to prescribed medication.  For example, caffeine has a mild effect on allergies and asthma, and researchers affirm that folk remedies, when used in combination with standard treatments, may be helpful for some.

Make sure that any supplementary treatments that have worked well for you in the past are not too far away when you are riding.

11. Wear gloves in every season

Whether or not your horse allergies include excema, hives, or rashes, you should plan to wear gloves whenever you are working with horses. Not only does this work to protects your hands and prevent callouses, but wearing gloves will help you remember not to touch your face – which can minimize your exposure to allergens.

12. Journal your allergic reactions to horses on your phone

If your doctor okays exposure to horses via regular riding lessons or through riding a hypoallergenic horse, you’re likely to still have some breakthrough symptoms either to horses directly or through cross-contamination. Keeping a record of good days with horses versus days with horses that had a lot of breakthrough allergy or asthma symptoms can be a helpful tool to track themes, help your healthcare providers manage your medications, and identify auxiliary allergies.

Important note: you and your healthcare provider or asthma/allergy specialist are the experts on your experience and your allergies. While the notes in this article may provide some suggestions for possible ways to safely experience horses despite horse allergies, always consult your medical team before exposing yourself to known allergens.

 

References for this Article:

1. Victor, SBinnmyr, JLampa, ERask‐Andersen, AElfman, LLevels of horse allergen Equ c 4 in dander and saliva from ten horse breedsClin Exp Allergy201949701– 711https://doi.org/10.1111/cea.13362

2. Gennaro Liccardi, Antonello Salzillo, Bruno Dente, Amedeo Piccolo, Gaetano Lobefalo, Paolo Noschese, Maria Russo, Jean Ann Gilder, Gennaro D’Amato, Horse allergens: An underestimated risk for allergic sensitization in an urban atopic population without occupational exposure, Respiratory Medicine,Volume 103, Issue 3,2009,Pages 414-420,ISSN 0954-6111, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rmed.2008.09.017 .( https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095461110800348X )

3. John Fornadley,ALLERGY IMMUNOTHERAPY, Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America, Volume 31, Issue 1, 1998,Pages 111-127,ISSN 0030-6665, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0030-6665(05)70033-5.( https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0030666505700335 )

4. Felix K, Ferrándiz R, Einarsson R, Dreborg S. Allergens of horse dander: comparison among breeds and individual animals by immunoblotting. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1996 Jul;98(1):169-71. doi: 10.1016/s0091-6749(96)70239-7. PMID: 8765831. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8765831/

5. Zahradnik E, Janssen-Weets B, Sander I, Kendzia B, Mitlehner W, May C, Raulf M. Lower allergen levels in hypoallergenic Curly Horses? A comparison among breeds by measurements of horse allergens in hair and air samples. PLoS One. 2018 Dec 12;13(12):e0207871. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207871. PMID: 30540798; PMCID: PMC6291085.

6. Are curly horses an alternative for horse allergic riders? Wolfgang Mitlehner, Wolfgang Mitlehner. European Respiratory Journal Sep 2014, 44 (Suppl 58) P4032; https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/44/Suppl_58/P4032.short

7. Martin D. Chapman, Robert A. Wood, The role and remediation of animal allergens in allergic diseases, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 107, Issue 3, Supplement,
2001, Pages S414-S421, ISSN 0091-6749, https://doi.org/10.1067/mai.2001.113672.

8. Welsh, EJ; Bara, A; Barley, E; Cates, CJ, Caffeine for asthma, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2010, pg 1465-1858, https://doi.org//10.1002/14651858.CD001112.pub2

9. Fazil Orhan, Bulent E. Sekerel, Can Naci Kocabas, Cansin Sackesen, Gonul Adalioglu, Ayfer Tuncer, Complementary and alternative medicine in children with asthma, Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Volume 90, Issue 6, 2003, Pages 611-615, ISSN 1081-1206, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1081-1206(10)61864-9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1081120610618649

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