Horse Tales: Healthy Skin, Healthy Horse

by Judy Van Put

An important part of caring for a horse is daily grooming and keeping your horse’s coat shiny and clean; learning a bit more about the horse’s coat and the importance of grooming will be helpful in keeping her healthy and in as good condition as possible.

A horse’s hair and skin are good indicators of its overall health. The skin is actually the largest organ of the body. It’s the horse’s primary “armor,” acting as a shield against insects, cold, wet conditions, heat and dehydration and carrying immune functions. In addition to the hair follicles, the skin contains millions of sensory nerve cells and sweat glands and plays the important role of controlling body temperature.

How best to maintain healthy skin and keep your horse’s coat sleek and shiny? By taking into consideration your horse’s diet and environment (such as having a barn, shelter or run-in shed where she can escape stormy conditions) and establishing a daily routine of observation, grooming and overall diligent care.

Be sure to discuss with your veterinarian or local Extension agent whether your horse’s diet contains the proper amount of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, including trace minerals such as copper and zinc, which are especially important for healthy skin. It’s also helpful to have the forage tested. Your Extension agency can send a sample of the hay you’re feeding to a lab to be analyzed for protein, fiber and nutrient composition. If your horse is pastured, they may be helpful in identifying minerals or nutrients that might not be sufficient in your area that would need to be added as supplements to the horse’s diet. It’s common to use salt and mineral blocks to help correct these deficiencies.

Take a good look at your horse’s coat – if it’s rough or not completely shed out, it could be caused by an overload of parasites. The best way to determine this is to take a fresh fecal sample to your vet to determine which kind of worms or parasites may be causing the problem and deworm accordingly. Foals and weanlings will need to be dewormed more aggressively than older horses, as they have not yet developed a natural immunity to parasites.

The daily task of grooming is necessary not only to get rid of the loose hair, dirt and dead skin that has built up, it’s also important to stimulate the skin’s production of oils. In addition, you’ll be aware of any skin conditions, such as rainrot, ringworm or other maladies – wounds, lumps, insect bites or ticks that she may be carrying that require immediate attention.

Start with clean grooming tools and keep them together for convenience. Each horse should have its own brushes and combs – this will help prevent skin diseases and skin conditions from being transferred from horse to horse.

Horse Tales: Healthy Skin, Healthy Horse

Begin with a rubber curry, using a circular motion against the lay of the hair. You may want to use the curry and dandy brush at the same time, and can use the curry to clean hair and dirt from the dandy brush as you go along. Photo by Judy Van Put

Use a halter and lead with a quick-release knot, or use cross-ties, and have your horse standing comfortably. Although some horses appreciate a vigorous grooming, others are not as comfortable, especially with the currycomb. Although the horse’s skin averages almost one inch in thickness, it varies from more than an inch over the lower back and rump to as thin as less than one-half inch on the head, legs and underbelly, where you’ll need to brush less vigorously.

We begin our currying and brushing on the horse’s left (near) side. Place one hand on the horse’s side to steady her and use the currycomb in the other hand in a circular motion, against the hair, while standing close to the horse. Curry the entire horse except for the sensitive areas where the skin is thin. Rap the curry on a hard surface from time to time to dislodge excess hair and dirt.

Next, use the dandy brush to clean the dirt and scurf that has been loosened by the currycomb. Start at the back of the neck and work down over the whole body, brushing with the lay of the hair, using a flicking motion to send dirt and loose hair away from the body. From time to time, you can use the curry to clean the dandy brush. Brush carefully on the legs and pay particular attention to the crevices between the legs and the body and the back of the pasterns. Dust and dirt can collect in these places and cause irritation. During wet weather, the back of the pasterns is prime location for a painful condition known as “scratches.”

Moving to the mane and tail, if you use a brush instead of a comb you’ll lose less hair. If you use a comb, a plastic one will break less hair than a metal one. A product such as Cowboy Magic or Show Sheen in small amounts will help the brush or comb glide through the mane and tail. Select small sections of the hair and work from the bottom up until each section brushes smooth.

Now go over the entire body with the body brush, which has softer bristles than the dandy brush. Brush with the hair, keeping the currycomb in your other hand to scrape the loose hair and dirt from the brush, occasionally tapping the comb to clean it.

To clean the horse’s feet, face the rear of the horse. Beginning with the front foot, place the hand nearest the horse on his shoulder and run your other hand down the cannon bone. Grasp the cannon a bit and at the same time press your other hand against his shoulder. The horse should shift his weight away, and as he does, lift his foot. Some horses will react to a gentle squeeze or even begin to lift the foot for you as you run your hand down the leg. Never pick up the front foot higher than the horse’s knee or the hind foot higher than the hock. Using your hoof pick, clean out the area of the sole of the foot from the back to the front, paying special attention to the channels on either side of the frog. Be observant for stones, sticks or any objects that could be present in the soft tissue of the frog, looking for cuts, splits, bruises or swelling. Some horses are prone to hoof rot or thrush, which can be detected by a foul odor. Work your way around the horse, first picking out the front and rear foot on one side, then the other rear foot, ending up with the opposite front foot.

Finish your grooming with a clean towel or cloth, which will put a sheen on a clean coat. After the coat is finished, clean out the horse’s eyes and nostrils with a damp sponge or cloth and wipe under the tail.

In addition to keeping your horse in tip-top condition by daily grooming, you’ll help your horse to relax and feel more content. Her mood will improve, as will the bond between you and your horse, who will become more comfortable in your presence. You’ll become more observant and diligent, and coupled with monitoring your horse’s food and forage to be sure she’s getting the proper nutrients, it won’t be long before your horse will begin to gleam.

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