Fight Horse Respiratory, Skin Problems in
Sound equine management will keep your horse
free from respiratory difficulties and irritating skin
conditions this winter.
With all your winter-wear, your lotions,
vitamins, flu shots, your heated gym, office and home,
you're living in the lap of luxury compared to your horses
in the winter. Even in regions where temperatures remain
moderate throughout the winter, horses suffer from ailments
similar to those that plague their owners, including runny
noses, chapped skin, the flu and even cabin fever.
The irony is that many of the horses' winter-related
problems are initiated or exacerbated by their owners' good
intentions: In trying to keep their horses as warm and dry
as the hairless human deems comfortable, they drape
naturally insulated animals in blankets, seal them up in
airtight barns and stuff them with scoop after scoop of
grain. Indeed, most of the wintertime woes that plague
horses could be prevented with some simple management
changes. Consider these seasonal troublemakers and some
winterizing tactics that work with horse nature, not against
Good air quality is essential to the health of a stabled
horse no matter what the season of year. But in winter, when
your inclination is to cover windows and vents, disconnect
fans and shut barn doors, inadequate ventilation can cause
serious respiratory problems.
Research has shown that by the time ammonia buildup in
stalls reaches levels that we can smell, the gas is already
sufficient to damage horses' lungs. Dust and mold, too, can
initiate or aggravate allergies--most notably heaves--and
irritate respiratory membranes, making horses more
susceptible to respiratory infections and bronchitis.
Be fastidious in your stable management, keeping stalls
clean and dry with, if possible, daily cleaning and airing
out. Passive ventilation--floor- and soffit-level vents that
operate on the hot-air-rises principle--provides a
practically draft-free flow of fresh air. But if your barn
has no vents other than doors and windows, experiment with
combinations of openings to let in air without blasting the
inhabitants with wind and precipitation.
A properly installed mechanical system should change the
interior air without causing drafts. Cool fresh air may make
you shiver, but it's much healthier for stabled horses than
stagnant, dust- and fume-filled air trapped unchanged within
a sealed building.
A horse becomes chilled when he loses body heat too quickly,
most commonly immediately after exercise on a windy and/or
cold, low-humidity day. Without adequate cooldown after
exertion, the mechanisms for dispersing body heat do not
reverse quickly enough into the heat-conserving mode-hair
coat dry, erect and fluffy; superficial blood circulation
curtailed. This rapid heat loss drops the horse's body
temperature to below normal and knocks a chink in his immune
A good rule of thumb for cold-weather riding is to spend
twice as long on cooldown following sweat-making exertion as
you would during fair weather. Then cover him with a cooler
or quarter sheet to retain body heat until his
heat-conserving mechanisms kick in. A lofting layer of straw
between the blanket and wet skin encourages air circulation
and reduces clamminess.
Winter's increased humidity and precipitation added to
well-insulated (by nature or nurture) skin create an ideal
breeding ground for the agents of skin disease. The
following conditions generally afflict horses when they're
at their woolliest:
Preventing skin problems in winter is a
matter of cleanliness and diligence. Blankets, tack,
grooming equipment and common living quarters can spread the
contagious conditions or repeatedly re-infect the same horse
unless you eliminate these infectious agents. Consult with
your veterinarian about disinfectants and other treatment
strategies if one or more of your horses comes down with
skin crud. Keep your horses, the stalls and all the
equipment that comes in contact with them clean and dry, and
you'll avoid the vast majority of seasonal skin disorders.
- Rainrot--crusted, painful, infectious
skin inflammation, caused by Dermatophilus organisms and
triggered when small to moderate amounts of moisture,
insufficient to thoroughly cleanse, fall onto a dirty,
neglected coat; scabbing and hair loss often follow rain
- Bed itch--dermatitis producing
crusty, sore spots on parts of the body that make
contact with soiled bedding, typically the thighs and
- Ringworm--a contagious fungal
infection causing scaling of skin and hair loss in
roughly circular patches.
- Scratches--scabby and/or oozing skin
inflammation on the back of the pastern above the heels,
caused by overexposure to moisture and loss of
protective skin oils.
- Lice--blood-sucking parasites that
thrive in the thick, unkempt coats of unthrifty,
stressed horses; associated itch drives horses to rub
and bite their skin raw; coat is matted with dandruff
and slightly waxy to the touch.
This article originally appeared in the January 1997 issue
of EQUUS magazine.