By far the most common problem with winter long coats is Dermatophilus infection (rain rot, mud fever). It begins as small areas of scabbing which come off on scratching with the hair intact. If you aren’t careful to check the skin with your fingers, this can get out of control before you realize it.
Wear the thinnest gloves possible when grooming so that you can feel any small bumps. Ski-liner gloves are a good choice and are priced at from $15 to $20 in most cases. Make sure that at some time during grooming you directly hand check common problem areas like the back, rump and lower legs for bumps, cuts or scabs.
Dermatophilus thrives with moisture and low oxygen conditions. Exposing the infected areas to the air by picking off the scabs is essential for healing and to prevent spread. In fact, if you catch it in early enough that may be all that is necessary to solve the problem.
If the infection is widespread, the scabs become very thick and tightly adherent to the skin. Removing them by hand is difficult and very painful for the horse. Shampoos and rinses are the usual treatment, but often impossible in winter. As an alternative, clip the hair over involved areas, apply a tea-tree-based sheath cleaner like Triple J Sheath Cleaner, (www.triplejproducts.com, 888-778-8100) or Farnam Excalibur Sheath Cleaner (www.farnamhorse.com, 800-234-2269) thinned with a small amount of water.
Allow this to remain in place for 5 to 10 minutes then remove by scrubbing briskly with a moistened sponge or nylon pot scrubber. Repeat as needed until scabs are all removed. Once the scabs are gone, you can switch to spraying on diluted Healing Tree’s TeaClenz (www.healing-tree.com, 800-421-6223) or continue daily sheath-cleaner application until healed. WARNING: It’s not a good idea to mix chemicals with herbal products, or herbals with other herbal ingredients.
“Scratches” often develop in the heel/pastern area on horses kept under very muddy conditions. The same treatment described above for Dermatophilus will work well for scratches. However, to get them cleared up you will have to keep the horse in a dry environment. Desitin (the diaper-rash product) or Corona (www.coronaproducts.com, 800-241-6996) are both good preventatives and will help heal minor irritations. They also repel water, helping to keep the area dry.
Once healed, if conditions are still muddy, try spraying the heels and pasterns with Tea Pro Equine Healing Spray (www.healing-tree.com, 800-421-6223). Allow it to dry thoroughly (the hair dryer comes in handy!), then coat the area well with petroleum jelly. Try to bring the horse in every day and clean the lower legs.
True ringworm is actually rare, but many fungal infections are dubbed “ringworm” nevertheless, especially when the horse develops circular areas of hair loss. In the warmer months, these are more likely to be caused by migrating threadworm larvae and will respond to deworming with ivermectin. If you see this in the winter, fungal is more likely. DermaCloth (www.kinetictech.net, 877-786-9882) and Equinature’s Aloe and T-Tree Wipes (www.equinature.com, 774-217-8057) are both wipes, making them an easy first thing to try during the cold months.
If that doesn’t work, get the human athlete’s foot product Lotrimin, available at any drug store. This is one time we recommend skipping generics. Other brands with different active ingredients can sting irritated skin. Be sure to wear gloves when treating suspected fungal infections, and do not share grooming tools or horse clothing with other horses.
Winter used to be the high-risk season for lice, which cause extreme itching. However, they’re rarely a problem today because lice can be effectively killed by the standard deworming dose of ivermectin. Ivermectin does not kill the eggs, however, so deworm the horse again in two weeks.
DANDRUFF. The combination of cold, dry air and less circulation to the skin when temperatures are cold can result in some degree of dry, scaly skin. You know how it goes—the more aggressively you groom, the more dandruff seems to appear! Your grooming routine and nutrition can help here.
Think thorough but gentle when grooming in the winter. Use a soft rubber curry to reach all the way down to skin level for a good massage effect (we strongly recommend the old-fashioned flexible oval curry comb, selling for $4 or less).
Follow with a stiff dandy brush, finishing with a soft body brush and/or towel. Better yet, follow with a good vacuuming (we like Rapid Groom, www.electriccleaner.com, 800-456-9821; about $370). A vacuum will cut the time and effort of removing the loosened dirt and skin tremendously. It’s a worthwhile purchase, as it can last 10 to 15 years or more (when cared for properly).
If your horse’s dander seems excessive, the cause may be nutritional. Hay has only half as much fat as grass because the fragile, anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids are lost. Although the skin and coat play important roles in your horse’s health, if calories and nutrients are in short supply, they’ll be diverted to more critical organs. Feed the horse, on average, an additional 2 pounds of hay for every 10° it drops below 40°, which is the horse’s critical temperature.
MUD WOES. Mud irritates the skin and traps moisture and organisms in a low-oxygen environment, setting the stage for skin disease. For mud on the lower legs, don’t hesitate to hose and wash it off even in winter.
For mud on the body, or if you can’t wash the lower legs, try to remove as much mud off the surface as you can before using a brush or curry. As soon as you use a tool, some mud gets down to skin level. The smooth edge of a metal shedding blade is good for this.
Once you have as much off that way as you can, pick up the curry and get to work. Again, a vacuum is worth its weight in gold. Spray coat polishes and detanglers (see January 2011), like Absorbine Show Sheen (www.absorbine.com, 800-628-9653), help keep mud from sticking to manes and tails, and make removing it easier.
Barn Hair Dryer. Don’t laugh. If you don’t have a hair dryer in the barn now, you’ll be amazed how often you reach for it once you have one. Dry = warm when it comes to the horse’s coat. A wet coat loses its insulating capacity. If the horse gets wet, towel the coat and fluff it up, then finish the job quickly with a hair dryer. (Be sure the dryer is cool before you put it away.)
Shedding Season. If you survive the winter without having to deal with a skin problem, you have one more hurdle ahead of you—spring shedding. Keeping up vigorous grooming and good nutrition as described in our article, as that’s the foundation for rapid shedding. For tools, we reach first for our $4 rubber oval curry, getting shedding and currying done at once.
If the horse is really hairy or you find all that currying too much work, you’ll like the $55 FURminator (www.furminator.com, 888-283-1620) and the $25 FurBuster (www.bamboopet.com, 877-224-7387). Yes, they’re much more expensive than a standard shedding blade, but they’re worth it. We’ve found that the FURminator gets the job done more quickly than the less-expensive FurBuster.
Remember that exercised horses shed out quicker than the couch potatoes. This makes sense, since exercise increases blood flow to the skin and the production of natural skin oils, which will help ease out the old hair.
If your horses are stalled, you may speed up shedding by using artificial light to extend the daytime. Shedding is triggered by alterations in the brain’s sensitivity to hormones, including prolactin. This in turn is triggered by increasing day length. Using a 100-watt bulb in the horse’s stall for 12 hours on, 12 hours off, may help.
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