I’m sure we all feel the same - that amongst the finest and most beautiful things to see in the world, is a horse with a sleek and shiny coat!
We know a healthy horse has a smooth, glossy coat – the degree of shine depending on the time of year, feed and grooming. And when we see a coat lacking lustre and shine, long, harsh or coarse, it’s a sure sign that something is not right!
A poor coat could be caused by sun bleaching, fungal infections, parasites, insect bites, allergies, chemicals (shampoos and medications), worms, Cushings disease, thyroid imbalance and other diseases. And of course, horses that aren’t correctly fed often have a dull coat! With so many possibilities, it’s often difficult to identify the cause, however with a few tips we can minimise the chances of them occurring – and respond quickly if they do!
Top hot topics around coat condition include diet and allergies. Severe deficiencies can cause the coat to lose it's gloss, but even long-standing poor nutrition has surprisingly little impact on the skin and hair. Most commonly seen in underfed horses, is decreased resistance to skin infections.
Allergies can cause hives and itchiness on the face, lower limbs or body, but coat problems caused by food allergies are very rare — the most common cause of allergic reactions are insect bites. This makes insect and fly control mandatory. Keeping fly population under control can be helped by moving horses away from water, manure piles, compost, and cattle; stabling before dusk until after dawn, using fly sheets or masks sprayed with permethrin repellent, placing fans in stables, using time-release insecticide sprays, or placing fly wasps in compost and manure areas, and fish in ponds. The most common insects are the nasty little, biting culicoides midges, that attack the back and ears. In a midsummer survey 1500 midges were caught between 6pm and 10pm, very few between 7am and 4pm. Seasonal allergies may also be due to pollen, insects, house and dust mites in the summer, stable and mold dust in winter. Some improve when moved to a different area, kept inside rather than outside – or outside rather than inside - depending on the cause. Those allergic to mold spores and dust may do better on pasture, while those allergic to summer pasture, pollen and insects may be better kept indoors during the season.
Another reason for a dull coat is sun-exposure and insufficient grooming - sweat can be very irritating! But, harsh shampoos should be avoided as they strip natural oils and upset the natural acid balance of the skin – increasing risk of bacteria and parasites and causing itchiness. Keep in mind that 'human-grade' or 'salon-quality' shampoos and soaps are usually alkaline (pH up to 11), while the horse's skin is more acid, pH 4.5 to 6.
pH-balanced horse shampoos have a great soothing effect for allergies and dull coats. Simply bathing with cool water re-hydrates the skin, improves its barrier function, minimises absorption of allergens and can help prevent secondary infections. Colloidal oatmeal products (shampoos, conditioners, and bath treatments) can reduce itchiness, sulphur/salicylic acid shampoos can reduce scaliness and antimicrobial shampoos (benzoyl peroxide, chlorhexidine or imidazoles) can assist with bacteria conditions. Lime sulphur (a fungicide and insecticide from nurseries) is really good at multi-tasking due to its anti-parasitic, anti-itching, anti-seborrhoea and antibacterial effects in all animals — if you can handle the smell (= rotten eggs!).
As far as diet helping coat (and skin) health, you can’t go past oils and the essential fatty acids (EFAs) (omegas 3, 6 and 9) found in linseed, canola (flaxseed) and cold water marine fish oils; omega 6 in sunflower, corn, evening primrose and safflower oils, omega 9 in olive oil. Entire crushed flaxseed includes lots of other good things including minerals and amino acids. Itchy or sensitive skin should improve within 2 - 8 weeks. A lot of people swear by adding MSM in the feed - as a source of sulphur. Feeding 10 - 12 g/500 kg twice daily, slowly reducing to once a day over several weeks, helps lots of coats!
Because horses can have a combination of allergies (environment, insect, food, drugs etc) treatment must address all causes. And, any time the horse's coat shows radical changes, fails to shed properly, becomes rough or there are skin changes, there is a need to check the horse carefully and get sound advice.
EQUINE CLINICAL NUTRITION
Dr Jennifer Stewart