MASON — Home beer brewing skills have a number of obvious benefits, but helping a promising dressage show horse get healthy usually doesn’t make the short list. For Julie and David Pagels, however, a bit of brew-inspired engineering provided an economical remedy following a series of veterinarian visits and associated respiratory treatments for their ailing horse Glimmeratii.

“He had developed a terrible dry cough and it kept getting worse and worse,” Julie Pagels said. Eleven-year-old Glimmerattii — better known as Gus outside the show ring —had moved up through the dressage rankings until seemingly hitting a wall with chronic breathing problems commonly called heaves. “The only thing that would ease his symptoms was dexamethasone.”

A corticosteroid that can provide relief from allergies and inflammatory conditions, dexamethasone is listed as a restricted medicine by the United States Equine Federation. As the rulemaking body for national equine sports, the USEF keeps a tight rein on drug treatments that may provide an advantage over other competitors. Limited dexamethasone use was acceptable, but administered only at modest prescription levels, Gus’ cough lingered making his future as a show horse uncertain. There had to be another way.

Between a full-time U.S. Forest Service job on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and a busy schedule teaching riding lessons to young people in far northern Wisconsin, Julie went to work experimenting with alternative therapies.

“I tried albuterol syrup. I tried soaking his hay in water to deal with dust and mold particles. Dust-free bedding,” Pagels said. “None of it seemed to help his symptoms much and I was running out of options. Then I started researching hay steamers, which are widely used in Europe.”

At around $1,000, a commercial steamer might become yet another dead-end investment in treatment. Enter David and a bit of home brew know-how. A financial advisor by day, he invariably makes time to tinker with projects on their horse farm, including the art of making spirits with all its tubes, valves, and kettles. When he and Julie sat down to review the basics of commercial hay steamer construction, David made a few calculations and penciled a materials list.

“After a long day of teaching lessons, I came home and there it was,” she said.

David had plumbed the bottom of a 30-gallon Rubbermaid bin with a network of perforated PVC pipe. From a pipe fixture that exited the base of the plastic container, a rubber hose wound its way to a wallpaper steamer. With a cash outlay a bit south of $100 and some do-it-yourself handiwork, the Pagelses were back in the saddle with Gus.

“Since I started using the steamer, Gus’ symptoms are mostly nonexistent,” Julie said. The bin accepts hay by the half-bale, a typical serving on most days that complements other sources including pasture grass and grains. The steaming process takes about two hours; the finished product should be served within 24-hours.

“I know a lot of horses suffer from breathing issues, and I really encourage owners to try steaming hay for their animals,” she said. “Steamed hay smells so good, it’s something that horses really find appealing.”

Now more than two years into a steady diet of steamed hay, Glimmeratii is again performing dressage at a high level with Julie in the show ring. The sport is demanding, requiring complete physical and respiratory control to navigate through a series of prescribed movements before a panel of judges. The duo has climbed near the upper reaches of the discipline, achieving Intermediate One Dressage. With horse and rider both in good health, the future is wide open.

“He’s a really sound horse. I want to give him every chance I can to move up more levels and be as good as he can be.”