Common Skin Issues for Horses

 The horse’s largest and most visible organ is his skin. Its job is to protect the internal organs from the outside environment; to help maintain constant temperature, water, and mineral balance; and to

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 The horse’s largest and most visible organ is his skin. Its job is to protect the internal organs from the outside environment; to help maintain constant temperature, water, and mineral balance; and to provide the sensations of pain and touch. The skin is composed of the epidermis–a dried cellular layer–and the dermis–the live portion of the skin. The dermis holds the nerve endings, hair follicles, blood vessels, and sweat glands. Most skin problems originate in the dermal layer.


Skin problems can be divided into several groups. The most common problems arise due to trauma. Lacerations, the most obvious example, can be treated by surgical repair or by allowing them to heal on their own, depending on their location and size. However, allowing them to heal without intervention can give rise to exuberant granulation or proud flesh. This is a proliferation of the tissue just below the skin. It delays healing of the skin by becoming a mechanical barrier to migration of dermal cells across the defect. Treatment includes surgical or chemical removal of the excess tissue and medication to prevent regrowth while the skin bridges the defect.


Chemical irritants such as urine, feces, or human-applied substances like mustard oil or ginger can produce profound skin problems. Some trainers apply mustard oil (in combination with chains) around the pasterns to accentuate a horse’s gait. This chemical can produce a profound skin inflammation.


Sunburn also can be a direct trauma to the skin, a symptom of underlying disease, or an effect of the presence of certain medications in the dermis. Sunburn often occurs on the muzzle, around the eyes, and on white-skinned regions. Prevention, as in humans, is mainly by limiting exposure to direct sunlight. Sunblock creams made for humans work well on horse muzzles, although the protectant must be replaced frequently for maximal effect. Sunburned skin will peel, and it takes a week or so to heal. Skin burned due to systemic disease is called photosensitization. It usually is related to diseases involving the liver and can be diagnosed with a blood test. Occasionally sunburn can be caused when medications, such as tetracyclines, make the skin more sensitive

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Written by:

Marc R. McCall, DVM, operates Cherry Creek Animal Clinic in Parker, Colo.

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