A couple of years ago, a new horse arrived at the barn in the late winter/early spring, well-blanketed, but dull-coated and glassy-eyed. When the blanket came off it was clear that it hadn’t been removed for some time: the mare’s rump, flanks and barrel were scorched with rain scald. Her coat hadn’t seen a brush for weeks. Fortunately, a concerned army of ardent groomers worked diligently on the patient mare over the next few weeks. They industriously curried and brushed; they carefully shedded and pulled. Within three to four weeks of focused grooming, and proper diet, they discovered a pretty little bay mare with a shiny coat under all that matted hair and scabs. As my daughter recently discovered when she took on a different horse with rain rot, this is not an isolated issue. Proper grooming, coupled with balanced nutrition and a proper farm management program are often “the cure” for many skin conditions and coat problems.

“Remember that skin is just one big organ,” said Lisa Burgess, DVM, a Millgrove, Ontario-based veterinarian. “If a horse is living in an environment that is not clean, or it’s not getting the nutrition it needs, it will be prone to health issues. There is an emotional component to good horse health, so keeping your horse stress-free will help promote the strong immune system’ needed to prevent or fight off the agents that can cause common skin conditions,” she noted.

But, sometimes, despite our best efforts, rain rot takes hold, cracked heels won’t heal and our classy show pony or prized jumper has scratched himself bald. As horse owners, we tend to obsess about skin conditions because we know a shiny coat is one of the first signs in assessing how healthy and well-cared-for our horses are.

More important, though, poor coat and skin condition are often signs that a horse’s overall immune system may be depressed or compromised.

Not Just Superficial

Causes of skin conditions can range from viruses, bacteria and fungi to trauma, hormonal imbalances or even allergies. So, determining the root cause of persistent skin conditions will likely require help from a vet or other qualified equine healthcare specialist.

As Colorado-based homeopathic practitioner Cheyanne West noted, “Skin problems can be very challenging in that many are “whole body” problems, and what shows on the surface is often just the tip of the iceberg.” What’s important in identifying and treating skins, said West, is to look at the whole picture, so that you are not just treating a symptom or condition, but the whole horse.

Nevertheless, there are some stthe average horse owner can take to treat, or at least alleviate the symptoms of some of the more common skin conditions. As even a quick visit to the local tack shop, feed or natural health store – not to mention Internet sites – reveals, these days, most horse owners have increasingly easy access to a variety of “natural”, herbal and homeopathic remedies. And, with persistence, it’s also possible to find vets who employ complementary remedies along with more conventional medicine, or qualified/trained practitioners of such complementary therapies as homeopathic medicine.

Holistic vet Gail M. Jewell, DVM, described homeopathy as a system in which “like cures like.” She said, “The task before the homeopath is to find a homeopathic remedy that best represents the patient’s symptoms. So, a remedy that causes a set of certain symptoms in a healthy person (or horse) will cure a patient who is diseased and showing those same symptoms. The theory is very simple. The practice is made very challenging by many factors.”

Jewell stressed that in homeopathy, as with most holistic treatments, there is a “need to match remedies to the specific horse,” but she added that there are a number of remedies for skin conditions that are well-described in any homeopathic repertory, such as hepar sulph (aka calcium sulphide, made by using the flaky inner layer of oyster shells), silicea, hypericum (aka St. John’s Wort), and sulphur. “They come up a lot in prescribing for diseases and injuries common to horses and specifically for skin issues,”she said, “and can be found at most natural health care stores.”

User Beware

Now, here’s the rub: the terms “natural” or “herbal” or “homeopathic” etc., are not necessarily synonymous with “safe”.

Moreover, homeopathic remedies should not be confused with herbal remedies, as the goal in homeopathy is to find the treatment in something that can cause the same symptoms. Some of the substances used in homeopathy, therefore, are in themselves toxic, at least in undiluted concentrations.

While there are a number of substances and remedies with long, favourable histories in treating skin conditions, use them with common sense and caution and, as Jewell advised, if the condition worsens, or doesn’t begin to resolve after a couple of weeks, if the horse develops hives or swelling in its extremities – stop using the product/remedy and call your vet.

Holistic Approaches to Healthy Skin

Since holistic healing takes a whole body approach to health and well-being, one must look beyond the skin’s surface, within the horse, to determine the root of ill-health. Consider the following advice in order to promote healthy skin.

  • Immune Booster: Echinacea is believed to assist the disease fighting capability of the body by increasing the response that naturally occurs when the body fights off disease. It can be used as a preventative medicine to ward off disease or as a treatment for diseases.The University of Guelph’s Equine Research Centre studied the use of Echinacea in horses a few years ago, in a trial with eight horses. Each horse was fed Echinacea for 42 days then fed none for a further 42 days. Blood samples were taken and subjected to a complete screen every seven days. The study found Echinacea increased the level of red blood cells, lymphocytes (involved with the immune response) and haemoglobin (oxygen carrier). It also increased the activity of the neutrophils (cells which consume foreign particles in the blood).
  • Gut Health: Probiotics, added on an ongoing basis to a nutrition program, will help keep a horse’s guts functioning properly, said Burgess.In the small intestine, most carbohydrates are absorbed, along with minerals, vitamins, fats and proteins. Insoluble carbohydrates, which are not so easily digested, as well as any undigested soluble carbohydrates, are then passed into the fermentative vat of the cecum. Animals possess the enzymes to break the bonds between soluble sugars, but do not possess the enzymes to break the different bonding between the glucose molecules in insoluable carbs. The microorganisms in probiotics do produce the enzymes capable of breaking this particular bond, thereby making the food available to both the “bug” and the host animal.
  • Feed EFAs: Essential Fatty Acids, particularly those with Omega 3, are just as good for horses as humans, mostly by reducing inflamation. Although you can get these in fish oil, you might instead want to try flax or hemp oil (available at natural health stores) or flax seed (buy whole seed from feed store, then grind as needed) for your herbivore.
  • Topical Applications: Substances with aloe vera and/or tea tree oil can be very effective to soothe and even heal many of the lesions of common skin problems. Burgess noted that aloe can also be added in small amounts to feed for a few days during the height of the problem. Equine product suppliers carry various creams and topicals containing aloe vera. Tea tree oil is toxic when ingested, especially in high concentrations. When added in its diluted form to topical agents, however, it provides antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial properties.
  • General Itchiness: Either buy tincture blends of nettles, valerian and vervain (aka verbena) or purchase them and mix together. Or, brew a tea made from the fresh or dried herbs. Boil valerian root for 10 minutes; steep vervain leaf for 10 minutes. Use about 5 ml a day of equal parts of each in a bit of mash.”Personally I like tinctures, as they are standardized,” Jewell said. “Many herbs sold at natural food stores have no shelf date, as it were, and generally I recommend using dried herbs for only up to a year past harvest date.”A tincture is an alcoholic extract (e.g., of leaves or other plant material) or solution of a non-volatile substance.
  • Insect Repellents: Essential oils, extracted from flowers or plants (e.g., chrysanthemums), can be used as part of the recipe to make more natural insect repellent.Jewell also recommended, however, looking at electric bug zappers, manure control, and turn out times as many insects are worse at dawn and dusk.
  • Bathing: While over-bathing can actually lead to skin and coat issues, sometimes a bath is the best cure.”My favourite if I’m desperate, is rubbing a litre of mineral oil into the hair coat (I don’t do legs if I don’t have enough) let it sit an hour then shampoo and rinse,” said Jewell. “I like shampoos with aloe or add 1/2 c aloe gel to a litre shampoo.”When these steps are not sufficient, cautious use of holistic remedies, preferably in consultation with a trained holistic practitioner, may just be what the (holistic) do recommends.
  • While many skin conditions are self-limiting and resolve on their own, concerned horse owners should take a more holistic view. By knowing how their horses are faring each day, by grooming, monitoring diet and taking the steps necessary to address environmental factors, such as extremely wet conditions, they can prevent skin conditions from developing – and spreading – in the first place.