Preventing and Treating the 6 Most Common Skin Irritations in Horses

Posted by Carolyn Adams, Tue, Apr 10, 2012

Peak riding season is upon us, which means long days enjoying time with your horse on the trail or in the show ring. Spring and summer can also bring an increase in various types of skin irritations for your horse. Here are the six most common, along with some tips for preventing and treating them.

  1. Mane and tail rubbing. Because they can’t scratch, horses will often rub their tails or manes against a tree, stall wall, or other surface when they have an itch. This practice will break off hairs on the tail or mane, leaving behind bare patches that are both unattractive and irritating to the horse. Tail rubbing is typically an outward sign that something is going on with your horse; dry skin, a fungus or another skin irritation may be to blame. Part the hair on your horse’s tailbone or mane and look for bumpiness, flakiness, or scabs. Another culprit could be dirt buildup on the horse’s genitals; cleaning these areas should be done once or twice a year by either yourself or your vet.
  2. Sweet itch. Sweet itch is a skin disease caused by an allergy to gnat bites, which are an ongoing problem for almost every horse owner. EQUUS magazine recently asked its readers to share their favorite methods for preventing sweet itch, and you can read some of their top responses here.
  3. Tack rubbing. It’s not surprising that saddles and tack, which touch the horse when they’re involved in all kinds of movement, can rub their skin and make it tender. This issue is particularly common in the spring, when the horse’s winter coat is brittle prior to shedding and you are riding more often. Proper grooming before and after every ride is the best way to prevent tack rubbing, keeping an eye on the areas on which the girth and saddle sit to make sure that they are clean and brushed. 
  4. Summer itch. Summer itch appears when flies do—during the warm months of summer. Summer itch is an allergic reaction on the part of the horse to the saliva found in biting flies. A comprehensive fly control program in your barn will help protect your horse from the extreme itchiness and discomfort associated with summer itch.
  5. Girth itch. Girth itch is caused by a fungal infection (similar to ringworm). It usually occurs in the horse’s “armpit,” is often spread by contact with contaminated tack and grooming supplies, and is made worse by the friction caused by tack rubbing as the fungal spores enter broken skin. To help prevent girth itch, make sure that your cinch or girth fits your horse properly and your tack and grooming supplies remain clean and sanitary.
  6. Rain rot. Known by a number of names (rain scald, mud fever, dew poisoning, and others), rain rot is a very common skin infection in horses—especially in conditions with high temperatures and high humidity, in which the organism that causes rain rot multiplies. The condition is contagious and horses most often become infected through shared saddle blankets, grooming supplies, and other infected items that come into contact with a cut or scrape on the horse. The best way to prevent rain rot is to have separate grooming tools and equipment for each horse and/or to make sure to disinfect any shared equipment between uses.

Always consult your veterinarian when treating skin conditions, diseases, or other ailments to ensure a proper diagnosis and course of treatment.