Combatting Skin Crud on Horses

Living outdoors and sweaty workouts predispose horses to a variety of skin conditions. Good horsekeeping goes a long way in preventing skin funk, but sometimes even the most diligent barn cleaning and grooming routines just aren’t enough. Here’s a look at how to identify, treat, and prevent skin crud on horses.

“Skin Crud” Defined

“Skin crud” is a catch-all term used to describe any skin condition in the horse that causes raised bumps, har loss, scaling, crusts, and or pus, said Susan L. White DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM. These conditions have a visual “ick” factor and can be itchy or painful for horses.

“Similar to the descriptive term ‘colic,’ which describes gastrointestinal pain in the horse and can be present from a number of different diagnoses, ‘skin crud’ can occur due to a variety of different causes,” she said.

Common Skin Crud Causes

In some cases, skin crud comes from within the horse; it can be caused by allergies or sensitivity to sun (also called photosensitivity), for example. Other causes, such as rain rot (characterized by small crusty bump), are caused by bacteria. Still other cases are caused by a fungus—ringworm (scaly, crusty patches of skin where the hair falls)—for instance. Environmental conditions can also result in skin crud; pastern dermatitis, commonly called scratches, usually is environmental in origin.

Treating Skin Issues

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. An accurate diagnosis from your veterinarian determines the best treatment plan, White said. Generally speaking, however, there are some protocols that many veterinarians recommend to treat some common conditions:

Rain rot: Shampoo the affected area and rinse with warm water to help soften and remove the crusts. This might take several baths, White said.

“Antiseptic shampoos may be used,” she said. “Personally, I do not like shampoos with iodine because it tends to dry the skin.”

Pastern dermatitis: Clean and thoroughly dry the affected area with a gentle nondetergent or antimicrobial shampoo. While scratches are healing, try to keep your horse in an area where his legs can remain clean and dry—this means avoiding turning out in muddy conditions if at all possible.

“Topical antimicrobial medication (and) zinc oxide sunscreen for white haired areas sensitive to solar radiation are two other common treatments,” White said. “These medications should always be applied to a clean and dry area; otherwise (they are) trapping organisms and irritants next to the skin.”

Ringworm: Topical antifungal medication can be applied after carefully cleaning the area and removing any crusts of exfoliated skin. Some veterinarians don’t recommend bathing the whole horse because it could contribute to spore dispersal and hair breakage, White said. Topical medications are best applied gently and locally, she said, as the organism lives in hair follicles; brushing too aggressively could spread the fungus to other parts of the horse’s body.

Tips for Preventing Skin Issues

Of course, prevention is the best treatment option. White offered these tips:

  1. Feed a well-balanced diet, which in itself can help a horse maintain healthy skin. Additionally, multiple products are advertised to support skin health, but White encouraged owners to check with their veterinarian or equine nutritionist before adding supplements to their horses’ diets.
  2. Groom horses thoroughly and regularly. Proper grooming moves skin oils from sebaceous glands to the skin surface and the hair shafts. The natural oils help protect the skin from environmental pressures.

    “Grooming also has the added benefit of giving you a chance to examine all of the skin and discover any problems early in the disease process,” White said.

    Additionally, hosing horses off with cool water after a workout or a bath can help. Daily shampooing is not necessary as too many applications can contribute to dry skin, White added. When you do bathe with shampoo, use a nondetergent product designed for horses.

  3. Clean, saddle blankets, fly sheets and masks, tack, and other equipment. For example, dirty saddle pads rubbing on a sweaty back damages the skin’s natural protective layer, creating an environment where bacteria and/or fungus can thrive.

Also, White added, “ringworm is commonly spread between horses through shared use of tack and blankets without washing or cleaning between horses. Boots and other lower leg protective gear, especially if dirty or if dirt or sand is trapped beneath them may damage skin.”

Take-Home Message

Skin conditions can be unsightly, frustrating to treat, and cause your horse discomfort. But with a little elbow grease and attention to detail, you can quickly identify and treat problems before they become significant issues.