Heaves in horses is a respiratory disease that affects the lower airway (the lungs and bronchi). An easy association would be to call it "equine asthma". Heaves typically has an allergic component to it and tends to be seasonal. Since the disease results in chronic inflammation of airway, it can affect the horse year round.
You may have heard it called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), or Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD). The currently used moniker is RAO. COPD is a human disease and there is not a lot of correlation between heaves and the human syndrome, so that name is no longer used. IAD is similar to heaves, but is lesser in severity, tends to affect young performing horses, and is not recurrent. In the end, the term "heaves" or RAO should be reserved for mature horses with chronic airway obstruction that can be reversed by environmental change or bronchodilation. (Don't worry, we'll get to that later!)
For some horses, a change in environment just isn't enough. Sometimes, we have to resort to medical therapy. The 2 goals of treating heaves are to 1) reduce inflammation and 2) to increase airflow. In most horses, we are able to use corticosteroids (Prednisolone, Dexamethasone) to reduce the inflammation and this is enough. While we only fulfill one goal with this drug (reduce inflammation), we are still able to give enough relief. If this is not enough, then we add a broncho-dilator such as albuterol. These open the airway (Goal 2) and reduce the signs of respiratory distress.
Since RAO is a chronic condition, it is usually an issue that will need attention for the rest of the horse's life. Management changes and periodic medications to control symptoms will be the name of the game. But just because we can't necessarily "cure" RAO doesn't mean it's a death sentence. With proper management and treatment, these horses can generally lead comfortable, happy, and even productive lives. So don't be scared! (Unless there really is a goblin in your stall.) Early intervention can be very important, so if you're worried your horse may be "heavey", coughing too much, or just "not right" - give us a call so we can help you sort it all out.