Skin and coat condition are a leading indicator of a horse's health
Achieving that enviable shine or “glow” takes time, knowledge, a little luck, and a lot of work.
Three main factors affect the horse’s skin and coat health:
Genetics, for most horse owners that are not breeders, comes down to luck and mitigating any genetic disorder. Genetics primarily influences coat color, however some conditions affecting the skin and hair are thought to be hereditary.
Adequate nutrition is the building block for a healthy skin and coat and can influence hair quality more than genetics. Nutrition weighs in more heavily, as diet is essential in creating the building blocks for a healthy appearance.
Of the three, environment plays the largest role. The most important factor in equine skin and coat health is environment; this includes grooming and controlling factors such as moisture and insect activity. Biting insects cause itching, bumps, and irritation, as well as transmitting a number of diseases, some of which are discussed in this article.
Following a set of tips and treatments provides guidance on how to proceed with a variety of symptoms. Two recommended products in particular can be used to treat many different symptoms and are suggested along with a fully stocked first aid kit. Good stable management plays a critical role in preventing many of the conditions discussed in this article.
Equine Anatomy 101
It’s important to have a general knowledge of equine anatomy and physiology to address concerns and communicate with your veterinarian and other equine experts. The diagram below illustrates different parts of the horse.
Know What a Healthy Coat Looks Like
Understanding what is normal with a horse’s haircoat can accelerate identifying an abnormality. It is important to note that hair loss specifically is a symptom, not a disease. Hair grows beneath the skin’s surface. The hair follicle is the source of the hair’s growth and anchors the hair into the skin. Surrounding the follicle is the sebaceous gland, which produces sebum. Sebum is an oil with antibacterial properties to protect the skin. It also gives healthy hair a glossy shine. After hair is lost, it takes three to six weeks to regrow, depending on genetics.
Common Genetic Disorders
Primarily responsible for coat color, some conditions that affect the skin and hair are thought to be genetic.
Cannon crud has a plethora of names; stud crud, “leg funk,” urine scald…all of which refer to the same condition, more scientifically known as cannon keratosis. This disorder presents as waxy paste, visible on the front of the rear cannon bones. Also known as seborrhea, cannon crud is a flaky and scaly condition of the skin. It is caused by the sebaceous glands overproducing skin cells. It can affect all breeds and genders and may present at any age. While the exact cause is unknown, it is thought some horses may be genetically predisposed to the condition.
Cannon keratosis is caused by the sebaceous glands overproducing sebum. Sebum is the oil that helps create shine in the horse’s coat and contains antibacterial properties to protect the skin. When it is overproduced, it creates a waxy, scaly patch on the horse’s skin.
Mallenders and Sallenders
A little-known condition affecting draft breeds, specifically those with feathering on their legs. Hyperkeratosis, or over-production of keratin, causes thickened scabs to appear on the back of the knee and the front of the hock joints. These scabs can crack, causing painful sores that are at risk of secondary infection. While there is no cure, mallenders and sallenders can be treated. This condition is also thought to be genetic.
Cushing’s disease is caused by a malfunction of the pituitary gland. Commonly seen in older horses, Cushing’s can be managed but not cured. Symptoms include a long, curly haircoat that doesn’t shed out in the springtime, muscle wasting, lethargy, laminitis and neurologic issues. Typical management includes a special diet (low sugar/high fiber feeds) and increased veterinary attention2.
Seasonal alopecia is caused by an imbalance in the pineal gland. This may cause the horse to shed out unevenly and exhibit bald patches. If the skin underneath the hair looks normal, continue to observe the horse. Diagnosis is visual and the condition is treated by keeping horses under adequate lighting year-round to help mimic natural sunlight and prevent a horse from growing (and subsequently shedding) a heavy winter coat.
Nutritional Deficiencies Causes Unhealthy Hair
Diet really is the foundation of healthy coat. The crucial dietary components that contribute to skin and coat shine are fat, vitamins (A, D, and E) and biotin. Vitamin A assists with the body’s immune response and promotes healthy skin. Vitamin D should be supplied primarily by sunlight but can be supplemented with feed. Vitamin E comes from fresh forages and acts as an antioxidant.
Important Vitamins for Healthy Hair
Both vitamins D and E are fat soluble, which means the horse must have dietary fat in the body in order to absorb these nutrients. Generally, fat is added to the diet by including flaxseed or oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to help promote healthy skin and boost the immune system. Fish oil and flaxseed provide omega-3 fatty acids which makes them popular components of and supplements to equine diets.
Find the Right Horse Feed
Many mid-to-high quality equine feeds will contain adequate, balanced levels of vitamins and fats. If your feed program is lacking, or your horse needs a little extra, you can top dress your feed with a supplement to compensate. Malnutrition is one cause of a dull coat.
That said, it is important to read the labels of any feed or supplements. Some supplements do not contain enough of the necessary vitamins to make a difference. Others may be out of balance and the horse will be unable to absorb the extra nutrients. If you have questions on what to feed, reach out to an equine nutritionist, feed company, or reputable website for more information.
Important Environmental Factors for Healthy Horse Hair
is one of the most important environmental components in cultivating a healthy coat. Routinely currying dead skin cells to the surface and brushing them away helps keep the coat clean and assists in pulling the natural oils from the root down the hair shaft for an extra sheen.
It is important to wash grooming tools regularly to avoid accidentally transferring pathogens from one horse to another.
Dandruff in horses is a relatively common, usually cosmetic condition in which dry skin flakes off. There are two main types of dandruff in horses: dry and oily. Dry dandruff is more common in the mane and tail (like the dandruff you may see in a person’s scalp) while oily dandruff is usually observed on the extremities—the cannon bone, elbows, and hocks. Dandruff can be caused by a variety of factors. It is important to diligently observe your horse in order to find and treat the root cause. Dandruff can usually be treated with simple grooming techniques and over-the-counter shampoos and coat conditioners. If conditions persist or get more serious, always consult your veterinarian.
Avoid Wet Conditions
Wet Conditions are responsible for two relatively common skin disorders: rain rot and scratches.
A bacterial skin disease affecting horses. It is caused by the bacterium Dermatophilus congrolensis. Also known as rain scald, it appears on the top side of the horse—where rain would fall, and then run off—such as the upper parts of the head, neck, and back. Rain rot is more commonly found in geographic areas with high temperatures, high humidity, and surprise—lots of rain. For example, this condition is more common in the southern region of the United States during the winter season, as horses grow thicker coats that subsequently lengthen drying times.
Under normal circumstances, the horse’s natural skin barrier can’t be penetrated by these specific bacterial spores. However, trauma, like a scrape or insect bite, or prolonged periods of excess moisture can compromise the skin and allow the bacteria to invade. The bacterial spores produce hyphae, which are threadlike tentacles that spread out from the initial site. This causes an acute inflammatory skin condition. The horse’s immune system responds by deploying white blood cells to the area. As these white blood cells accumulate, they create small bumps on the skin, called pustules. Once the bumps mature, the skin dies off, forming a scabby tuft of hair and dead skin. These are sometimes called “paintbrush lesions” and can easily be pulled off, leaving a bare, sometimes raw spot of skin behind.
Scratches goes by many names, all of which refer to the same condition — equine pastern dermatitis (EPD). This condition affects the lower leg of the horse and is caused by repeated exposure to wet/dry/wet conditions. Prolonged exposure causes an inflammation of the skin on the horse’s pasterns. The skin can display a scabby, crusty appearance and may ooze. In some cases, the affected area could be itchy to the horse. Especially common during the spring when pastures and paddocks are muddy, scratches can generally be diagnosed and treated in several easy steps utilizing over-the-counter products. That said, it is important to closely monitor the horse’s condition and consult your veterinarian with questions or if the condition worsens.
Insect Activity can both cause and transmit diseases affecting the skin and haircoat of the horse. Horses can also be protected from biting insects using a combination of fly sprays and fly protection, like a fly sheet and fly masks. It is important to distinguish between the different types of fly sprays; some are only insecticides; others are true repellents and will prevent the insect from landing.
Effective Insect Repellents
Insecticides (Less effective as a repellent)
Oil-based repellents generally last longer than water-based repellents. Even the best repellents usually need to be applied more than once per day to be effective.
Installing mesh curtains and fans can both help curtail flying insects. Mesh curtains, if fine enough, on stall and barn openings can help keep insects out of the stable. Stall fans move air, making it more difficult for flying insects to land on the horse. Culicoides are weak-flying insects that can’t fly against a breeze, so fans can be quite effective4. Another factor to keep in mind is insect feeding patterns. Some only feed at dawn or dusk, so limiting turnout during those times can reduce exposure.
Also known as summer itch, sweet itch is a seasonal recurrent dermatitis is an allergic reaction to the saliva of Culicoides biting gnats or midges, also referred to as a “no-see-ums.” Some breeds, such as Icelandic horses, Shires, and Welsh ponies, are genetically predisposed to this condition1. However, any horse can develop sweet itch after exposure to these insects. Like any allergic reaction, repeated exposure can result in escalated immune responses.
Culicoides gnats can be active from April until October, depending on the climate and weather conditions. Despite their small size, they can travel up to half a mile in search of food. The Culicoides insect breeds in standing water (think ponds, puddles, and marshy areas) and are more active during dawn and dusk. The biting gnats are typically classified into two types, “dorsal feeders” and “ventral feeders.” Dorsal feeders, the most common gnat, prefer to feed on the skin on the top half of the horse—the ears, poll, mane or top of the neck, withers, back, hindquarters, and tail. The less common ventral feeders tend to congregate on the horse’s face, chest, and belly.
Lice can also cause scratching, leading to hair loss. Lice diagnoses are visual. Look for dandruff that moves; if you do find lice, don’t panic—they are species-specific, so you shouldn’t be able to get lice from your horse. Treatment for lice requires bathing with a medicated shampoo specifically aimed at de-lousing livestock. You can also apply topical pyrethrin or permethrin products and oral ivermectin. It’s important to thoroughly wash and clean anything that may have come in contact with the horse to avoid re-contamination (grooming brushes, blankets, saddle pads, etc.)
Mange causes itching and hair loss, although it is not very common in the United States. Biting mites are typically seen around the mane, forelock, base of the tail, or in long leg hairs. Diagnosis is made by examining skin scrapings under a microscope. Mange can be treated using a combination of oral Ivermectin and topical ointment prescribed by a veterinarian.
Onchocerca cervicalis, commonly referred to as neck threadworm, is a parasite transmitted by the culicoides fly. In the adult stage, the worm lives in the nuchal ligament. Microfilaria, the larvae of the adult worm, cause the symptoms of the disease, which can include extreme itching, a scaly appearance of affected skin, lumps, and open sores. Extreme cases can also affect the horses’ eyes. There is no treatment for adult worms, but the larvae can be treated with ivermectin, a common ingredient in horse wormers. Prevention should be prioritized. Neck threadworms should not be confused with threadworms but are related to the parasite that causes river blindness in humans.
Ringworm presents as a scaly, dry, hairless patch of skin usually circular in shape. It is caused by a fungus, not a worm or parasite as the name may imply. While the horse’s immune system could naturally clear up the infection in a few months, treatment is highly recommended to expedite the healing process and minimize the risk spreading to other animals. Highly contagious, ringworm can be spread through direct contact or via objects such as brushes, blankets, or stall walls. The fungus is highly resilient and can live for months on a given surface. The main treatment for this skin condition is bathing—both the infected animal and anything that animal may have touched.
Tips and Treatments to Maintain Healthy Hair
Treatment will vary based on the diagnosis, but there are some general steps that can be followed for the-above mentioned disorders.
Observe each horse a minimum of once per day. This will allow you to quickly note any abnormalities and determine an appropriate course of action. Generally, the sooner you identify and begin treating a problem, the quicker it will heal up.
Daily grooming is a great way to closely examine your horse and quickly catch any changes. Removing dirt and excess hair regularly also helps keep the skin and coat healthy
Have a First-Aid Kit
Have a first-aid kit stocked and ready to deal with emergencies. If you don't have a first aid kit, they are easy to make.
Identifying the Cause of the Problem
Determine the root cause. Ask yourself “Why” more than once—dig deeper and ask questions. Sometimes we determine the root cause quickly, other times it may take some trial and error.
Possible factors to consider:
- Weather changes
- diet changes
- insect activity
Treat the symptoms
Document progress, or lack of progress, to learn what works and what does not.
When in doubt, always consult with a veterinarian.
Do thorough Research
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet; fact-check, flag credible sources, and add a dose of common sense. Use caution with “home remedies.” If you wouldn’t do it to yourself, don’t do it to your horse.
Some Common Products to Help Maintain Healthy Hair
- Shapley’s MTG (Mane Tail Groom) is a popular solution. It treats a variety of bacterial and fungal skin problems, and also helps with hair growth.
- Vetricyn, while noted as a little more expensive, was also mentioned numerous times by horse owners trying to find solutions for multiple conditions. It also works well for scrapes and cuts.
Good Stable Management Practices
- Manure management. Regularly cleaning stalls and pastures of manure will eliminate the breeding ground of certain flies. Manure should be removed from the property at least once per week, or properly composted.
- Eliminate standing water. Mosquitoes and flies both breed in stagnant water.
- Utilize fly protection. Fly spray, fly sheets, and fly masks can all help keep insects from landing on and biting your horse.
Ensuring each horse has adequate shelter is important. Consider limiting turnout in rainy or wet conditions. If horses are turned out, provide shelter such as a shed. Outfitting your horse in a waterproof stable blanket can also help protect them from excess moisture.
Avoid sharing common items, such as grooming equipment, between horses. Some bacteria, insects, and parasites are easily transmitted by shared items, like brushes. Rain rot is one example of a highly contagious condition that can be spread by items such as brushes, or even environments such as sharing the same paddock.
While genetics, nutrition, and environment all play a role in equine skin and coat health, they are not equal. Adequate nutrition is the building block of a healthy coat but managing the horse’s environment plays an even bigger role. Good stable management practices, including regular grooming, insect management, providing adequate shelter, and disinfecting shared items and spaces all play a role in preventing disease and disease transmission. If your horse does develop a skin or coat condition, following general treatment steps can help shorten the duration and severity. Keep a first aid kit on hand, and don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian with questions.