How to Avoid Equine Skin Problems in Winter

We all sigh with relief when the midges are on their way out and we can relax our sweet itch regime for a few months.

But for those of us who keep our horses and ponies out all or most of the time (as we know it’s what they thrive on), there are plenty more challenges awaiting with the cold damp winter and early spring weather.

Quite a few equines are prone to skin breakouts such as MUD FEVER, RAIN SCALD, and other forms of DERMATITIS (such as ECZEMA, MALLENDERS and SALLANDERS) in damp weather since the microbes which are mainly responsible (bacteria and fungi) thrive in moist conditions. It rarely gets cold enough for long enough to kill off the microbes in the immediate environment.

Some types of horses are more prone to particular conditions; for example, cobs and heavy horses are much more prone to mallenders and sallenders (excess keratin production leading to thickened, crusted scale and scabs on the legs) than most.  Other factors include age and health of the immune system. Conditions such as Cushings Syndrome and Equine Metabolic Syndrome can cause sufferers to be more prone to skin disturbances and it is always worth testing for these conditions if your horse has repeated skin infections and is in its late teens or older.

mallenders and sallenders in horses

                           A nasty case of mallenders

How can you help prevent these conditions?

Some horses need to wear outdoor rugs throughout the cold weather as they are clipped to avoid excess sweating during exercise. Unfortunately, no two days running have the same weather in our climate and most people can’t keep changing rugs continuously, so they must choose something that covers all contingencies.  This is usually a heavyweight waterproof rug which suits extreme winter conditions but can be too much on milder days and can overheat the horse, causing it to sweat.

Sweat under a rug can be a major source of discomfort and even cause skin infections such as rain scald.  The warmth and moisture under the rug can provide perfect conditions for bacteria and fungi to thrive.  My suggestion here would be to remove the rug every day at some point and lightly brush the coat with a stiff dandy brush or rubber curry comb to lift the hair and aerate the skin and, ideally, massage in a drying powder such as Flowers and Zinc all along the back and where the coat is sweaty.  I find a light sprinkling of Flowers and Zinc in susceptible areas massaged in with fingers keeps my own (prone due to Cushings) horse free of rain scald for the winter.   

rain scald or rain rot

         Rain scald - a skin infection often exacerbated by rugs

This powder is also a useful preventative for horses prone to mud fever and similar conditions – massaging it into the skin (after first rinsing off mud if necessary and drying with a towel) cleans, dries and helps keep the lower legs clear of infection.  In addition, to help prevent mud fever, I would avoid covering up the legs in turnout socks or boots and refrain from brushing lower legs in case the waterproof outer mantle of the skin is broken, allowing microbes in. For more details, have a read of my blog article about mud fever.

For horses that are turned out in full winter coat with available natural or built shelter from the worst weather, no rug should be necessary unless the horse is old or infirm.  However, the back should be checked regularly for any sign of scabby or rough patches which might mean the start of rain scald.  If the horse gets soaked through and is unable to dry off for days, the hair can flatten and trap moisture, creating a warm damp haven for microbes.  Ideally, a winter coat should be standing erect to trap air – if flattened it doesn’t do a proper job of keeping the horse warm.  Therefore, a light rug can make the horse lose heat rather than keep it warm, as it flattens the natural insulation. If your horse has a very thick mane, make a habit of lifting it and aerating the hair underneath with a dandy or rubber curry comb.  I have previously waxed lyrical about the use of rugs, as people who follow me will testify - do have a read of my blog on the pros and cons of them.

How can you nip these skin conditions in the bud, once they've started?

You need to know what to look and feel for to start with.  Mud fever usually starts as a series of small bumps you can feel on the surface of the skin, most often on lower legs and especially in the pastern area so it’s a good idea to run your fingers lightly over this region every day in the winter months.  You may also feel an increased warmth and it may be tender to touch.

pastern dermatitis or mud fever

   A developed case of pastern dermatitis, commonly known as 'mud fever'

Rain scald starts as rough scaly bald patches usually along the back and shoulders, in the forelock and under the mane. They are usually visible but it’s good practice to check over the coat with your fingers regularly to feel for any lesions. There may be heat present.

Personally, I tend to address most winter skin conditions with the same 3 step regime: Cleanse – Dry – Turnaround:

1. Cleanse:  

I don’t tend to cold hose in winter unless there’s so much mud that you can’t see what you’re doing.  I prefer to cleanse with something I can quickly dry off with clean cotton wool or towel and frequently use either Quicksilver spray or Sweatbuster, depending on how large the area is I am cleaning.  If it’s the whole lower leg for example, I would probably use Sweatbuster as it’s cheaper and goes further. With a very large area such as all along the top line, I might use plain table salt dissolved in water (2 tablespoonfuls to a half bucket of warm water) and a clean sponge. With a smaller area, I will use Quicksilver lotion as its slickness makes it easy to massage into the skin while spraying. Both products are antiseptic cleansers, sweeping away microbes and effectively sterilising the area.

2. Dry:  

I carefully use a clean towel if I’m drying a large area making sure I don’t rub hard enough to disturb the fragile skin. Otherwise, I use cotton wool to press the area firmly but gently to remove most of the moisture. It’s important not to rub off any scabs before the skin has healed underneath, otherwise it’s open to further infection.

I then sprinkle a drying powder onto the area and gently massage in with my fingers until the skin feels dry. I don’t worry if the hair is still damp – it’s the skin I’m concerned with. I use Flowers and Zinc Drying Powder which has sulphur to disinfect, zinc oxide to soothe and talc to absorb moisture.

3. Turnaround:

The turnaround application I most often use is Sweet Relief Silver cream which I spread thinly with fingers over the lesion.  This is a very useful cream containing simple off-the-shelf ingredients that together work quickly and thoroughly to turn around visibly damaged skin.  The silver ions are naturally antiseptic and antibacterial and the other ingredients soothe, soften and protect the skin while it heals.

How long do I keep up the regime?

This of course depends on the severity of the case.  I need to stress here that if a condition fails to stabilise within 3-4 days or fails to show signs of improvement within a week, then a vet should be consulted. These infections can lead to more serious conditions such as cellulitis or lymphangitis if left.

Having said that, I have found that most cases of mud fever, rain scald, sores from rubbing, eczema and infected insect bites clearly benefit from the grooming regime described above.  With our horses, I would usually keep up the full 3 steps for at least 3 days, then carry on with the drying powder and cream only for another 4 days or so, leaving out the cleansing stage.  By this time the lesions should be showing signs of healing:  drier scabs, less red, no discharge, less heat, and less pain/irritation.  It is perfectly safe to keep up the drying and treatment for another week until scabs have cleared, and growth of new skin/hair is evident.  After that, I would keep using the drying powder in damp conditions and keep a close eye on all susceptible areas as described above.

© Kath Shaw 2021

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