Sun Protection for Horses

Q.In the summer, my Paint mare with pink skin gets sunburn to the point of having wrinkled elephantlike skin on her neck and shoulder. Even when kept in during the day, she turns red and hot and sensitive. Is this sunburn and photosensitivity (a sunburnlike condition usually caused by a reaction to something the horse ate) together? What plants would trigger this?—Barbara, Gainesville, Florida

A.Sunburn can occur on any pink (nonpigmented) skin region of the horse. The hair coat will usually protect the skin, but at the end of the nose and around the eyes there is very little hair. My other concern would be a potential for the skin cancer squamous cell carcinoma because it can be very aggressive and difficult to successfully remove.

Employing sun protection for horses with pink skin is highly recommended in Florida. Start with a fly mask that has a dropped nose piece. Some fly masks have a UV protection statement on them. I recommend you purchase the one with the highest UV protection claim and place it on the horse during the day, whether it is cloudy or sunny. You can also apply zinc oxide sunscreen lotion from a local drug store, but make sure it is waterproof. You might have to reapply it daily or more often.

For the shoulder and neck area there should be enough hair to protect that region. But if your horse is suffering from a fly bite allergy, she might rub the hair off and expose the skin to the sun. Consider using light-weight fly sheets as sun protection for horses missing hair on their bodies.

If your horse is eating poisonous plants (e.g., Crotalaria), that may also cause photosensitization. The neck and shoulder are primary spots for photosensitization from a poisonous plant to occur. 

You can review photos and information about toxic/poisonous plants in Florida at Or, have your county agriculture extension agent walk your pasture(s) with you and point out the toxic plants.

So, start by assessing the source of your horse’s problem. Have your veterinarian examine your horse to determine the underlying cause and begin treating it.