Sport Horse Skin Issues

Horse show environments can put sport horses at risk for developing skin problems. Learn what causes common skin issues and how to return horses to top form.

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Sport Horse Skin Issues
Many show horses receive frequent baths; however, this can affect the skin's normal bacteria that help keep pathogenic skin organisms in check. | Photo: iStock

A slick, shiny hair coat makes a statement in the show ring. It says you care for your horse well and that he’s in good health. Owners labor hard to achieve that polished look, but a variety of factors on the competition circuit might frustrate their efforts to maintain healthy skin and a robust coat.

Because some are infectious, your veterinarian will look for these when evaluating your horse for the health certificate required to cross state lines and enter event grounds. Let’s review causes of skin issues sport horses might develop and how to return these mounts to top form.

Transport Risks

Training, traveling, and competition can take their toll on any horse. Sport horses, in particular, participate in demanding events that require intense and regular training and transport.

“Traveling horses may develop the same problems as all horses but, as a result of transport stress and its effect on the immune system, they may be more vulnerable to infectious diseases like ringworm (the fungal condition dermatophytosis),” says Prof. Marianne M. Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, Spec. Equine Int. Med. KNMvD, equine internal medicine chair at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. “If a horse travels all the time in the same trailer with no others, there isn’t much concern for contracting infectious skin problems, but if trailers or stalls are shared, horses with long leg feathers could be at risk for chorioptic mange (caused by mites), as one example.”

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With this in mind, she advises owners to always pack their own brushes, sponges, saddle pads, and blankets for a horse show, designating one set for each horse.

Tiffany L. Hall, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, of Equine Medical Center of Ocala, in Florida, recommends cleaning trailers after each use to minimize the growth or spread of potential pathogens (disease-causing organisms). She echoes Sloet’s sentiment that skin contamination often stems from sharing during travel—particularly shipping boots and blankets or halters or other restraint devices. Fleece-lined shipping boots or halters are especially prone to microbe contamination, particularly if wet or stored for long periods.

“Other skin abnormalities that develop from shipping may result from tight halters or trailer gates rubbing on the horse’s skin enough to remove hair and irritate underlying skin,” says Hall. Check halter fit and comfort. Observe how closely the horse contacts the butt bar or gate, and take precautions by padding these areas.

Sport Horse Skin Issues
Horses might develop hives at shows in response to changes in diet or type of stall shavings. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Diet Changes

Other problems might arise due to feed source changes when horses in heavy competition travel to new places.

“If a horse is vulnerable to developing hives or protein bumps (as a result of an allergy to a specific protein), it is better not to change the diet,” says Sloet.

Away from home Hall recommends using clean bedding and hay to which your horse is already accustomed. Mold and dust in foreign hay can aggravate existing allergies in susceptible horses. At the very least, blend hay from your home source with the new hay you acquire at the venue, and consider wetting it prior to feeding to cut down on any dust.

Horses have also been known to develop hives in response to pine shavings.

If a horse breaks out in hives, contact a veterinarian before administering medications to keep in line with drug rules. While waiting, Sloet recommends cooling affected areas of the skin with cold water. In some cases, says Hall, bathing with a mild, fragrance-free shampoo helps remove topical allergens or irritants.

Frequent Baths

To keep your horse looking his best, you probably bathe him regularly to remove dirt and debris.

“Regular baths are beneficial for eliminating dirt and to restore a horse’s skin and coat health,” says Hall. “However, bathing too frequently or with the wrong products adversely affects the skin’s ability to act as an effective barrier.”

“Cleaning a horse with just water after heavy exercise to remove sweat and dirt is often effective enough,” says Sloet. “More involved baths with soap or shampoo should be done as little as possible because it’s important to minimize removal of nonpathogenic bacteria that reside on normal skin.”

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These normal bacteria often keep pathogenic skin organisms in check. “If disinfection is really needed, a shampoo with chlorhexidine or tamed iodine may be useful in an occasional bath,” she adds.

And when you do bathe, always rinse thoroughly to remove soap. “Shampoo and condition with products formulated for horses weekly or every other week, at most,” says Hall. “Some horses have skin sensitivities to certain shampooing products; in those cases, other products may be tried.”

Horses occasionally develop dandruff (seborrhoea), which Sloet says can result from too much bathing. However, she says, “dandruff is more often a sign of an underlying infection, a disease (e.g., pemphigus—when the body’s immune system attacks the bonds that keep the skin cells together, causing blistering), or a hereditary problem.” A thorough veterinary evaluation can help you determine (and treat) the underlying cause.

Another skin care concern involves cleaning your saddle pads, boots, blankets, tack, and equipment. Sloet stresses the importance of rinsing blankets and saddle pads that have been washed with detergent thoroughly; otherwise, detergent can irritate the skin or set off skin allergies.

“Although fragrance detergents make riding equipment smell pleasant, some horses have mild to severe hypersensitivity (allergic) reactions to particular products containing fragrance or other ingredients,” says Hall. “Consider using a mild detergent for your equipment, and always rinse thoroughly.”

“After rinsing these items with clean water, dry them with clean towels or air-dry in the sun,” adds Sloet.

Sport Horse Skin Issues
Saddle or girth sores can develop if your ride your horse regularly in poorly fitting tack. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Equipment Rubs

Saddle sores can develop due to regularly riding in a poorly fitting saddle or girth. Ideally, you’ll want to use only equipment that fits properly. If your horse gets a sore and you can’t replace the offending tack right away, give him time off from riding and longe or pony him for exercise. However, competition schedules might not allow for the luxury of rest and time to heal. In these cases, try using a neoprene girth, which is designed to reduce skin friction. Also, hemorrhoid cream, such as Preparation H, helps “tighten” skin, alleviate active inflammation, and provide slippage beneath abrasive equipment.

“Other skin abnormalities include sensitivity to contaminants on the saddle pads, girth, or other saddle fittings,” says Hall. “If not regularly cleaned, saddle pads or blankets may harbor organisms that transfer to the skin when in close contact during use, especially when the horse sweats. Some horses are also sensitive to products used to clean or oil leather.”

Check exercise boots (or brushing, splint, open-front, etc.) regularly to ensure debris isn’t caught inside that can put pressure on tendon and ligament tissues or cause friction abrasions of the skin. Dirt and sweat also act as irritants. After each ride scrub and rinse leg boots well with clean water, then air-dry.

In all cases keep dedicated equipment for each horse separate; refrain from pad-, blanket-, and boot-sharing among horses. This practice goes a long way toward preventing skin problems.

Sport Horse Skin Issues
The pink skin beneath white leg markings is vulnerable to photodermatitis. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Sun Exposure

Horses sporting white legs are vulnerable to a skin problem referred to as photodermatitis or photo-activated vasculitis—particularly when competing outdoors on the summer circuit.

“Normally, a horse’s white hairs give enough protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays,” says Sloet. “However, pink skin beneath white markings on the face or other areas may develop photodermatitis either directly from consuming phototoxic (causing a light-induced skin irritation) plants or indirectly by the effects of phototoxic plants on the liver that then sensitizes the skin to ultraviolet radiation. In either case the diet—both pasture and hay—needs to be scrutinized carefully for toxic plants.”

It helps to protect a horse’s white leg markings from the sun with leg coverings when outside. You can do so using leg bandages, tube socks, and special socks designed for this purpose.

“Many horses sweat beneath protective attire, especially in direct sunlight or on warm, humid days,” says Hall. “This may result in other skin lesions. For ultraviolet irritation problems in areas of white markings on a horse, minimize the horse’s time in direct sunlight by providing appropriate shelter.”

Lightly haired or bare pink skin on the face, muzzle, and torso are also at risk of sunburn, which Hall says can be painful and potentially lead to secondary skin infections or permanent damage.

“Facemasks with nose coverage are great for insect protection and may help protect against sunburn,” adds Sloet. “Alternatively, sunscreen ointment protects against the sun without pressure or abrasion that may occur with masks.” Always try sunblock on a small area first to check for an allergic reaction.

Irritating Insects

Insect hypersensitivities are often very frustrating for horses and their owners,” says Hall. “The best way to minimize these reactions is with effective fly management that includes daily manure removal from stalls and regular dragging of pastures to break up manure piles. Also, use of fly predators around the barn and/or use of a feed-through (supplement) to control fly maturation and growth are other effective insect control strategies.”

Minimize mosquitoes by eliminating or managing areas of standing water, especially in regions with large mosquito populations.

Insect repellent options include individual horse fly sprays or roll-ons, overhead stall/barn spray systems, and shampoos. Pyrethrin-based insecticides are useful but require regular application. “Keep in mind that some horses are sensitive to different products,” says Hall.

Insects are annoying and can sap a horse’s energy due to his constant efforts to keep them at bay. Ear sensitivity to gnats and other biting insects can also cause behavioral problems, which can be difficult to manage and affect performance. Many riders use ear protection on their horses even during competition to minimize a horse’s distraction. For stalled or pastured horses, a full fly mask with mesh ear covers can provide relief, along with fly sheets and mesh leg wraps.

Take-Home Message

Common skin conditions in competition horses include fungal infections; hypersensitivities; sunburn that can lead to secondary bacterial infections; and insect irritation. Watch for general signs of skin discomfort in your horses, such as itching, hair loss, bleeding lesions, or increased moisture on the skin surface, says Hall.

“Sport horses may also develop skin problems as result of ‘overtreatment’ from excess bathing and grooming,” says Sloet. Good hygiene and establishing dedicated equipment for each horse are practical strategies to limit sport horse skin ­problems.


Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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