Imagine this: you're out for a ride on your beloved horse, the wind gently rustling through your hair, and the sun casting a warm glow over the landscape. But suddenly, you notice something - your horse's skin is showing signs of irritation. 

In horse care and management, a fundamental truth can often be overlooked amidst training routines, dietary plans, and competition schedules: your horse’s skin. 

The skin is the largest organ of the horse’s body. It plays an integral role in their overall health and happiness. The significance of maintaining skin health in horses extends far beyond mere aesthetics; it's one of the cornerstones of their well-being that affects everything from comfort and behaviour to their ability to thrive as athletes and trusted companions.

Read on as we dive into the world of horse skin health to help you navigate and address any dermatological concerns your equine friend may encounter.  From common skin issues to preventive measures and treatment options, we have you covered.

Horses and Skin Issues

Horses can experience various skin conditions that can be influenced by factors such as their physiology, environment, and lifestyle. Since they spend significant time outdoors, horses are continuously exposed to different environmental elements.

Certain horse breeds are more prone to specific skin problems. The thick coats of some horses also provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, leading to potential problems. 

Skin issues in horses can be caused by various factors, including allergies, parasites, stress, nutrition, and inadequate care practices. Some common skin conditions that affect horses include rain rot, summer sores, sweet itch, ringworm, urticaria (hives), and warts.

Skin Anatomy Of Horses 

Proper horse care requires a thorough understanding of your horse's skin anatomy. The horse's skin is a complex and vital organ with various important roles in maintaining overall well-being. 

The body's largest organ comprises multiple layers, each with specific functions to protect the body and ensure its overall health.

Skin Layers and their Functions

Epidermis

The outermost layer of a horse's skin is called the epidermis. It serves as a protective barrier against various environmental factors, such as UV radiation, chemicals, and microorganisms. Additionally, it helps regulate the horse's body temperature by controlling water loss through evaporation.

Dermis

Below the surface of the skin is a deeper layer called the dermis. This layer is thicker and houses blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles, sweat glands, and sebaceous glands. Hair follicles are responsible for producing hair, while sweat glands help regulate body temperature by releasing sweat.

Hypodermis (Subcutaneous Tissue)

The deepest layer of the skin, known as the hypodermis, is composed of fat and connective tissue. Its primary functions include insulation, padding, and energy storage. Additionally, this layer serves to safeguard the body's vital organs from external impacts.

Important Functions Of The Skin 

The skin plays a crucial role in protecting a horse's body from various external factors. It acts as a barrier, shielding the horse from physical injuries, UV radiation, extreme temperatures, and invasive microorganisms. The epidermis is particularly important in preventing harmful substances from penetrating into the body.

The skin also serves a thermoregulatory function. Sweating and dilation of blood vessels of the skin releases excess heat while constricting blood vessels conserve heat in colder temperatures. Blood vessels in the dermis also deliver nutrients and oxygen to the skin cells, supporting their growth, repair, and overall health.

Horses rely on their skin to provide sensory feedback, enabling them to feel touch, pressure, and temperature changes. This helps them navigate their surroundings and respond to various stimuli.

Hair is produced by hair follicles in the skin, serving to protect against UV radiation and insects. The growth of hooves is influenced by the skin located at the coronary band.

The horse's body maintains moisture through the secretion of sebum. Sebaceous glands produce sebum, an oily substance that moisturises the skin and hair. 

When the skin is wounded, it has a remarkable ability to heal itself. It forms new tissue that closes the wound and reduces the risk of infection.

The Skin Reflects A Horse’s Overall Health and Well-being

The health and well-being of a horse can be determined by examining the condition of the skin. Any changes observed in the horse's skin can provide valuable information about potential underlying issues affecting different systems within the animal's body.

  • If your horses coat is dull or rough, has flaky skin, or is slow to grow, it could indicate nutritional deficiencies or imbalances.
  • Horses that have weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to skin infections, allergies, and slower healing of wounds.
  • Changes in hormone levels can affect the skin’s production of natural oils, leading to problems like dryness or excess oiliness.
  • Skin reactions, such as hives, itching, and rashes, can occur due to allergies from various sources, including food, insects, or environmental factors.
  • If you notice any skin abscesses, lesions, or unusual rashes on a horse, it's important to have them evaluated by a veterinarian. 
  • If a horse is experiencing skin irritations, hair loss, or persistent itching, these symptoms could be indicators of parasite infestations such as lice or mange mites.
  • Dehydrated horses may have dry, sunken, or less elastic skin.
  • Conditions like equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) can lead to skin issues, including insulin resistance and accumulation of fat.
  • Neglecting grooming can lead to problems such as tangled fur, infections, and a buildup of dirt. These issues can affect the overall appearance and overall well-being of the horse. 

Common Horse Skin Conditions 

External Parasites in Horses

Horses also get their share of external parasites, such as ticks, mites, lice, flies, gnats, and midges. These parasites can have a significant impact on the skin and coat of horses. Infestation can lead to:

  • Irritation
  • Itching
  • Hair loss
  • Redness and swelling
  • Secondary infections
  • Allergies
  • Scaly skin, scabs, and crusts
  • Disease transmission (e.g. Lyme disease by ticks)
  • Damage to the coat
  • Behavioural changes (such as rubbing and self-mutilation, restlessness, refusal to be ridden or handled, increased tail swishing, etc.)
  • Weight loss and poor health

An effective health program for horses should include regular parasite control and proper management. This involves regular grooming, utilizing fly sprays, fly sheets, and fly masks, use of a vet-approved tick, mite, or lice repellant, maintaining clean living conditions, and implementing a strategic deworming program. In severe cases or if there are concerns about transmitted diseases, veterinary care may be necessary.

Horse Grooming And Skin Health

Regular grooming plays a significant role in maintaining not only the physical appearance of a horse but also the overall health and well-being. Beyond the aesthetic benefits, grooming allows early detection of skin problems and other health issues. 

While grooming your horse, closely observe the skin, coat, and overall condition for any changes, abnormalities, or other issues that need prompt attention. It is very important to spot subtle changes and early warning signs (such as small lumps, lesions, scabs, wounds, hives, or changes in hair texture) before they escalate into more serious issues.

While grooming, check the horse’s skin texture and coat quality. Dry patches, flakiness, excessive oiliness, and changes in hair growth patterns can all indicate underlying skin issues or nutritional imbalances. This is also a good time to check for ticks, lice, or mites on the horse’s skin, in the coat, or within the mane and tail. 

Potential skin problems can also be indicated by sudden changes in the horse’s behaviour such as increased sensitivity, restlessness, or discomfort during grooming

Early detection and appropriate intervention is very important. If you notice any abnormalities or problems during grooming, you should seek veterinary advice promptly. Nipping issues in the bud often lead to more effective treatments and better outcomes.

Clean Grooming Tools Can Help Prevent the Spread of Skin Problems

Using clean grooming tools in horses is essential for maintaining their skin and coat health, and keeping a hygienic grooming environment. It can help prevent the spread of contagious diseases, like ringworm. 

Regular cleaning prevents the build-up of dirt or debris that can cause skin irritation and worsen existing skin issues. Dirt, oils, and debris on brushes and combs can become favourable grounds for bacteria and fungi thrive. Hypersensitivity reactions or allergies can also be triggered by residues (such as detergents and chemicals) left on grooming tools. 

If your horse is suffering from a skin issue, using clean grooming tools reduce the risk of introducing new bacteria to healing wounds or sensitive areas, promoting faster healing and reducing the likelihood of complications.

Skin Health: The Power of a Balanced Diet

A complete and nutritionally balanced diet will provide the essential building blocks for skin health, coat quality, and overall well-being. Consulting with equine nutritionists or veterinarians can help ensure that your horse receives the appropriate nutrients to maintain healthy skin and a lustrous coat. 

Table 2. Important Nutrients For Skin Health In Horses

Nutrient

Benefit to Skin Health


Protein


Vital for tissue repair and growth, including regeneration and repair of skin cells. 


Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids


Contribute to skin cell membrane integrity, reducing inflammation and promoting a healthy moisture balance in the skin.


Vitamins A and E


Maintain skin integrity, preventing dryness and promoting a glossy coat.


Zinc 


Wound healing


Copper


Supports the formation of connective tissues that are essential for maintaining the skin's structure and elasticity.


Vitamin C


An essential factor in collagen production. Collagen contributes to maintaining the skin's strength and suppleness


Biotin (a B-vitamin)


For hoof and coat health. A deficiency in biotin can lead to dry, brittle hooves and lackluster coats.


Antioxidants


Help protect skin cells from oxidative stress and free radical damage. This contributes to overall skin health and helps prevent premature ageing of the skin.


Water


Proper hydration from the inside out helps maintain skin moisture levels and elasticity, preventing dry and flaky skin.

 

Supplements for Skin Health

Supplements can be beneficial for promoting and sustaining the skin health of horses. However, it is important to note that they should be used as a complement to a well-balanced and nutritious diet.

Before introducing any supplements to your horse, it's important to consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist. They can help determine if the supplements are suitable for your horse's specific needs. Always keep in mind that monitoring your horse’s response to supplementation is essential. 

Table 3. Skin Supplements For Horses

Supplement

Benefit to Skin Health


Omega-3 Fatty Acids


Have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce skin inflammation, itchiness, and promote a healthy coat. 


Contribute to maintaining skin cell membrane integrity and moisture balance.


Biotin


Contributes to the growth of strong, healthy skin cells and a shiny coat.


Zinc and Copper


Contribute to wound healing, skin cell regeneration, and the production of connective tissues. 


Play a role in maintaining the skin's strength and elasticity.


Vitamin E


A potent antioxidant that protects skin cells from oxidative stress and supports overall skin health.


Aid in wound healing and reduce the risk of skin issues caused by free radicals.


Vitamin A


Essential for skin cell turnover and growth.


Supports the development of healthy skin tissues and a strong, resilient epidermal layer.


MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane)


A sulfur-containing compound that supports connective tissues, including those in the skin. 


Known for its potential to reduce inflammation and promote skin healing.


Lysine


An essential amino acid that contributes to protein synthesis and collagen formation. 


Hyaluronic Acid


Supports skin hydration and elasticity by helping maintain skin moisture levels.


Selenium


Helps prevent oxidative damage to skin cells and contributes to a healthy coat.


Probiotics


Promote gut health, which in turn can positively impact skin health. A healthy gut microbiome contributes to overall immune function and can help prevent skin issues related to inflammation and allergies.


Collagen Supplements


Directly contribute to the production of collagen in the skin.


It is particularly beneficial for horses recovering from skin injuries.

 

Environment Factors That Can Affect Skin Health Of Horses

Horses are highly responsive to changes in their environment, such as weather conditions and stabling arrangements. Additionally, they can be affected by various elements present in their immediate surroundings. It is crucial to regularly monitor your horse's skin health, particularly during periods of environmental change. 

By being aware of these potential influences, you can take proactive steps to ensure the well-being of your horse's skin. This includes appropriate management practices, practicing good hygiene, and implementing necessary protective measures based on specific environmental conditions. 

Seasonal factors

During the winter season, the cold and dry weather can cause a horse’s skin to become dry and flaky. This can increase the risk of skin cracking and discomfort. The lack of moisture in the air during this time exacerbates these issues.

During the summer, horses can sweat excessively due to hot and humid weather conditions. Improper management of sweat can lead to skin infections such as rain rot and fungal infections. 

Additionally, the warmer months attract insects like flies, mosquitoes, ticks, and others which can be a source of skin irritation, itching, and even allergic reactions. Implementing regular fly control measures, such as using fly sheets and repellents, can effectively reduce their impact on a horse’s comfort.

During the spring season, skin allergies are prevalent due to the increased presence of airborne allergens. Pollen, moulds, and certain plants can trigger allergic reactions such as itching, hives, and other common symptoms.

Poor living conditions

Excessive dust and dirt in a horse's environment can pose an increased risk to skin irritations or clogged pores. Horses exposed to dusty environments are more prone to conditions like mud fever and skin allergies.

Inadequate ventilation or overcrowding in a stable can result in higher humidity levels, the growth of mould, and the spread of skin conditions.

Sun Exposure

Horses can also benefit from sunscreen, particularly those with lighter coats or lacking pigmentation. Providing ample shade is also crucial for protecting their sensitive skin. Just like in humans, extended exposure to the sun's UV radiation can cause sunburn and skin damage in horses. 

Changes in Diet

A horse's diet can have an impact on their skin health. Changing from fresh pasture to hay or introducing new feeds may cause dietary imbalances, which may result in changes in coat quality, dryness of the skin, or increased sensitivity.

Travel and Transportation

When horses travel, they are exposed to various environmental changes and stressors. These factors can weaken their immune system, making them more prone to skin infections and allergic reactions.

When to Call the Vet

Skin problems in horses can start small and subtle. But without close monitoring,  proper diagnosis, and timely intervention, any of these conditions can possibly worsen and increase the potential for complications. 

Some of the most common situations in which you should consult a veterinarian promptly include the following:

  • Deep or extensive wounds
  • Rapidly spreading infections
  • Open wounds
  • Skin conditions that show no signs of improvement
  • Skin issues that are accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, or changes in behaviour
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Severe allergic reactions (hives or swelling)
  • Persistent itching, scratching, or head-shaking that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments
  • Suspected contagious skin problems, such as ringworm
  • Skin growths or tumours
  • Unusual or rapidly occurring changes in the skin

 

Having adequate knowledge about common skin conditions can give horse owners the confidence to actively protect the well-being of horses. By regularly grooming, practicing proper hygiene, taking preventive measures, and seeking timely veterinary care, you can significantly ensure the well-being and comfort of your horse.

 

September 17, 2023 — Merliza Cabriles