Maintain your horse’s health and hair coat in winter with these cold-weather grooming tips.
Once Mother Nature has clothed your horse in his winter hair coat, weight loss, wounds and skin infections are harder to recognize than when his coat was short and slick. Here are some tips that will help you uncover — and prevent — problems through the winter.
Treat Your Horse to a Bath
If you have access to a draft-free area, treat your horse to a weekly hand-wash. Using a bucket of warm water and a dampened sponge, address one body section at a time; towel dry. (Note: Not recommended in below-freezing temperatures, unless you have a heated barn.)
Insider tip: If your barn doesn’t have hot water, use a wand-like bucket heater in a five-gallon bucket. Most stores that sell stock-tank heaters carry them or can order one for you.
Insider tip: Speed the drying process with a human hair dryer (keep it moving to avoid burning your horse’s skin) or an overhead heat lamp.
Let Down His Hair
If your horse wears a tail bag, change it at least every 10 to 14 days, rinsing and reconditioning his tail before rebagging it. This will help prevent excessive hair breakage at the top of the bag.
Maintain Skin Health
Most winter skin conditions result from a dirty hair coat, which gives bacteria and fungi a foothold. Keep your horse’s skin healthy by vigorously currying his body daily. In addition to lifting dirt and skin debris to the surface, it’ll enable you to feel any diminishment in the fat layer over his ribs, indicating weight loss, and any bumps or clumpy hair that could signal a wound or skin condition.
For quick and easy dirt removal after currying, spray your horse’s body, mane, tail and legs with a non-silicone hair-care product, then follow with a soft finish brush or vacuum. (ShopVacs are inexpensive and work great.) Bonus: The slippery finish will help make dried mud easy to remove next time.
Spotting Skin Problems Early
Even horses who receive the best of care may develop the occasional skin problem. In most cases, equine skin troubles are minor and require nothing more than a thorough cleansing and the application of an over-the-counter topical remedy. Nonetheless, these conditions are generally itchy, annoying or even painful for horses, so the more promptly you can recognize and address them, the better for all concerned.
When in doubt, of course, you’ll want to call in your veterinarian for a diagnosis as well as guidance in treating the condition.
Scratches (also known as pastern dermatitis, greasy heel or mud fever) are skin inflammations on the back of your horse’s pasterns. The condition starts as chapping that is generally brought on by a cycle of alternating wet and dry weather conditions common in late winter and spring. Once the skin becomes cracked and sore, however, bacteria, mites and/or plant irritants often complicate the situation. Examine your horse’s pasterns for signs of redness and/or scurf, possible precursors to scratches. To further prevent it, keep fetlock hair trimmed with a coarse (Size 10) clipping blade.
Ringworm is a fungal affliction that takes the form of circular, raised hairless patches on the face, neck, chest, shoulder or girth area and may be scaly and crusty. It is highly contagious to both horses and people, and is spread through direct contact or through shared grooming supplies, etc. — so wear gloves when addressing it. Talk to your veterinarian about the best options for treatment and avoid treating ringworm with creams or lotions containing corticosteroids.
Rain rot (also known as dermatophilosis, rain scald or mud fever) appears as gray/white clustered scabs that leave behind patches of hairless skin. Moisture and skin damage are the two most significant contributing factors. Rain rot commonly occurs on the head, legs, back, rump and hindquarters. Acute rain rot most often surfaces on the back and hindquarters where the waiting organism is activated by moisture; in the early stages of rain rot, the skin may feel hot to the touch and the hair may stand straight up before scabs begin to form.
Scabs can be curried off with a soft-toothed curry comb; if this is painful and the skin is bleeding or oozing pus beneath, soften the scabs with a greasy ointment before trying to remove them, and then sweep them up to reduce contagion. Topical treatments for rain rot are sold through tack stores.
Warts (also known as viral papillomas) are raised, pinpoint- to pea-size bumps typically clustered around the muzzle and lips but sometimes on the eyelids and genitalia. Most common in younger horses, who have not yet developed an immunity to them, they are spread both through direct contact and indirectly via shared feed tubs, water containers, grooming supplies, etc. They disappear within two to three months, but squeezing or scraping away one or two of the larger growths may stimulate the body’s immune system and provide a quicker resolution.
Sweet Itch (also known as equine insect hypersensitivity, summer itch, summer eczema, Queensland itch) consists of hairless patches and red inflamed skin at the root of the mane and tail as well as on the face, neck and belly, where the horse has been rubbing incessantly. It is caused by an allergy to the saliva of biting midges, gnats, culicoides or no-see-ums, which feed on horses. Once a horse has become sensitized to insect bites, he will likely need oral or topical steroids to stop the cycle and anti-inflammatory drugs to control swelling and ease discomfort. Preventative measures include the use of fans, scrim sheets/fly masks and insect repellents.
Hives (also known as urticaria) are raised welts and bumps caused by an acute allergic reaction to things like vaccines, systemic or topical drugs, plants, topical sprays, pollen, or insect bites or stings. Although they usually disappear on their own within a few hours to a day and a half, steroidal medications may be necessary if hives are related to a severe allergic reaction (which may be accompanied by difficulty breathing and/or severe diarrhea. In this case, contact your veterinarian immediately).
Photosensitivity, a result of sun exposure combined with other complicating factors, almost exclusively affects pink skin, resulting in purplish, blister-like lesions that weep or slough away and scab over. If you think your horse has photosensitivity, contact your veterinarian. He may prescribe topical or oral steroids and other drugs to keep your horse comfortable; he may also test your horse’s liver function for signs of damage.
Bonus Tip from Dr. Edgar J. Balliet III, VMD, Balliet and Associates:
“Whenever fungal or bacterial issues come up while treating horses, Mane ‘n Tail Pro-Tect antimicrobial OTC products are my first line of defense. The Pro-Tect products are safe, affordable and do an excellent job: Shampoo for rain rot; Skin and Wound Spray Treatment for abrasions; Skin and Wound Cream Treatment for tail itch; and Thrush Treatment. The Pro-Tect line is a ‘must-have’ for your equine first-aid kit.”
Simple step-by-step guide
Grooming tips and techniques
Selecting the right shampoo
Basic bathing tips: Shampooing
Basic bathing tips: Rinsing
Keep Your Gray Horse Gleaming
Horse Hoof Care Tips
Equine Massage Therapy
Winter Horse Grooming Tips
Grooming for Show Day
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