Sunburned horse nose
Have you ever walked down the barn aisle during the hot summer months and observed the different noses that poke out to say hello? Some of them may have turned pink and are sun scorched, while others maintain their white coloring. These horses have similar lives and turnout time, yet some horses are clearly more affected by the sun than others.
Dr. Madalyn Ward, DVM, and author of Holistic Horsekeeping: Your Guide to Holistic Horse Care, believes you need to provide more than shade over the horse’s head to prevent sunburn and keep skin healthy.
“I believe the health of the skin for people and horses comes from their diet,” says Ward. “A diet high in natural, food-based antioxidants will help protect the skin from sun damage.”
Horses who live on native green pastures have the ability to pick and choose what they eat. They forage on leaves and grass and tend to consume the nutrients their bodies require in order to combat the effects of the sun. Horses who live a more confined life depend on their owners to supply them with needed antioxidant-rich foods.
Foods such as blue green algae, wheat sprouts and organic carrots, complete with green tops, are all good free-radical scavengers. A good rule to remember is that colorful plants with shades of green, purple and red contain antioxidant nutrients horses and humans need for healthy skin.
It’s best that horses get their vitamins, such as A, B, C and beta-carotene, in the form of whole foods, versus the synthetic B vitamins and minerals found in some feeds. Dr. Ward also recommends herbs such as parsley and rosemary. Planting rosemary bushes along a fence line will allow a horse to pick and choose how much she needs.
“Omega-3 fatty acids also support the skin. Chia, hemp and flax seeds all have good omega-3 fatty acid profiles,” says Ward.
Good liver support is important for clearing toxic chemicals and keeping skin healthy. Ward recommends milk thistle seed to support the liver. These can be fed at the rate of one tablespoon per 100 pounds for two to three weeks, or given as a regular part of the feed for two weeks each month.
“Sunburn is basically free-radical damage to the skin,” Ward explains. “We have a natural protection called free-radical scavengers and we tend to overwhelm them.”
When skin is damaged by the sun, it creates an over-accumulation of free-radicals. Free-radical scavengers such as antioxidants found in whole foods, combat this over-accumulation. The scavengers are constantly being used up. In order to replenish these stores, so your horses can continue to protect their skin from damage, they need to be fed foods with the correct nutrients.
“Over time, exposure to sun is going to cause skin damage, but the actual sunburn, the body can heal that before it causes a serious burn. The skin is constantly healing as long as it has the proper nutrients to do so,” says Ward.
NATURAL SKIN OILS
Too much moisture or dryness can deplete the skin of its natural protective oils. Frequent baths, with or without soap, in combination with the continuous cycle of morning dew on the horse’s coat, followed by the dryness of the afternoon, helps perpetuate the problem.
Ward recommends diluting Absorbine, Vetrolin or essential oils in a bucket of water and rubbing the horse down with a natural sponge to help put oils back in the coat.
OTHER BURN FACTORS
Skin color is a contributing factor to burn sensitivity. White skin on horses is more likely to burn than dark skin. One theory Ward poses is that the lighter skin doesn’t have the amount of pigment melanin found in darker skin, therefore making the light skin more vulnerable to ultraviolet rays. Melanin helps control the amount of ultraviolet radiation the skin absorbs.
Skin cancer is not common in horses, but it does occur. Ward recommends keeping an eye out for any sore that does not heal normally and watch carefully around the eyes and genital area.
Some medications may cause photosensitivity. Certain plants can as well, either directly or indirectly through liver dysfunction. Plants that cause direct photosensitivity include St. John's wort, buckwheat, perennial rye grass and burr trefoil. Plants that can cause sensitivity, if not broken down properly by the liver, include fireweed, ngaio tree, heliotrope, ragworts, tarweed and rattleweed.
A holistic approach is about looking at the whole picture and remembering that everything is connected. Shade is always a good idea; plenty of fresh water and a healthy diet filled with whole foods are a must. Support good liver function, avoid chemicals and be aware of what’s in your horse’s environment. And remember, what’s good for the horse, is almost always good for the rider.
Michelle Guerrero is a freelance writer and PATH International certified riding instructor who lives in Arizona. She grew up riding dressage and jumping, and today studies with James Shaw and enjoys learning to Ride from Within.