8 Common Equine Skin Problems and How to Identify Them

by Alexa Gohn

Skin conditions are typical in horses. Horses spend a lot of their days exposed to the elements, including excess moisture and infection-causing insects. Here, you'll learn eight of the most common equine skin problems, as well as how to best treat each condition.

8 Common Equine Skin Problems

Here's a review of the eight most common equine skin conditions and the best ways to treat them.

1. Rain Rot (Rain Scald)

Rain rot, caused by the bacteria Dematophilus congolensis, appears as a result of long-term moisture exposure. The excess moisture strips away the skin's natural protective oils, leaving it vulnerable to infection.

  • Appearance: Crusty scabs that easily peel off, causing hair loss and bare spots. The skin underneath may look red and raw. You'll likely notice rain rot on body parts most exposed to rain — at the top of the head, neck and back.
  • Treatment: Remove your horse from wet conditions. If treating a pasture horse, apply a light, breathable sheet. Rain rot generally treats itself, but in severe cases, your vet may prescribe a keratolytic-agent shampoo.

2. Ringworm (Fungal Dermatitis)

Ringworm comes from the fungi Microsporum and Trichophyton, which feed on many animals' skin. It is highly contagious and spreadable to other animals, including cats, dogs and cattle. Similar in appearance to rain rot, ringworm starts in one location and gradually spreads.

  • Appearance: Small, raised bumps that cause horse hair loss and crusty scabbing. Ringworm most commonly appears on the face, neck, shoulders, chest and along the back under the saddle area.
  • Treatment: Prepare for treatment by working away any scabs, exposing the sensitive layer of skin. Treat ringworm by washing the affected area with anti-fungal creams, shampoos or washes for a week or longer.

3. Warts (Papillomas)

Warts, sometimes referred to as papillomas, appear as a result of the contagious equine papillomavirus. It often occurs in younger horses with underdeveloped immune systems and is rarely painful.

  • Appearance: Graying or skin-colored bumps, most commonly found around a horse's nostrils or muzzle.
  • Treatment: Warts usually go away by themselves in six to nine months. Your vet may prescribe a wart-killing ointment in severe cases, but this medication isn't necessary if your horse doesn't show signs of discomfort.

4. Aural Plaques (Papillary Acanthoma, Ear Papillomas)

Aural plaques, like warts, result from the equine papillomavirus, usually spread by biting insects like black flies. These insects tend to bite the head, ears and abdomen, making the skin more susceptible to infection.

  • Appearance: White, flaky bumps on the inside of a horse's ear. The skin under the infection is typically pink and tender.
  • Treatment: Most often, an aural plaque infection heals itself. Vets recommend leaving the area alone, as scrubbing or scraping can lead to flare-ups. If the condition is causing your horse pain, a vet may suggest applying a soothing ointment. Prevent biting insects from infecting your horse's ears by applying a fly mask with ears.

5. Primary Seborrhea (Dandruff)

Primary seborrhea is a chronic skin condition, usually combined with a primary illness such as systematic diseases, bacterial or fungal disease and underlying skin conditions.

  • Appearance: Primary seborrhea appears dry or oily. Dry dandruff causes flaky skin, typically around the mane and tail. Comparatively, oily dandruff creates waxy crusts around the elbows, knees and lower legs.
  • Treatment: Dandruff is a chronic condition, managed with anti-dandruff shampoo. Talk with your vet about treatment methods for any underlying conditions.

6. Eosinophilic Granuloma With Collagen Degeneration (Eosinophilic Granuloma Complex)

Eosinophilic granuloma is a common nodular skin disease, most often caused by insect bites or allergies. Cases of eosinophilic granuloma aren't painful for your horse and don't cause hair loss, as most other skin conditions do.

  • Appearance: Irregularly shaped bumps that vary in size, from 1/4" to 2". The nodules are hard to the touch, usually found around a horse's neck and back.
  • Treatment: Eosinophilic granuloma can be challenging to treat. Your vet may recommend a steroid injection to reduce the size of the bump. If the condition doesn't adversely affect your horse, you can leave eosinophilic granuloma untreated.

7. Mange

Mange is an itchy, irritating skin condition caused by mite infestations. Mites pierce and burrow in the skin, causing reactions that range in severity.

  • Appearance: Mange causes inflamed, thickened and red skin. If left untreated, skin conditions can worsen, causing dry and crusty buildups accompanied by oozing fluid. Various mite species prefer burrowing in different areas of a horse, most commonly around the ear, fetlock, pasterns and between the legs.
  • Treatment: A vet can diagnose mange by testing samples taken from the infected area. Upon diagnosis, your vet will recommend an acaracide wash and internal parasite control treatment. It may take several weeks for the condition to clear up. 

8. Lice (Pediculosis)

Lice are tiny insects that reside in a horse's coat. Lice are highly contagious within herds but are species-specific, so you don't risk developing the same type of lice. 

  • Appearance: Intense itching is the first signifier that your horse has lice. Lice live all over a horse's body, including around the mane and tail.
  • Treatment: It's best to consult your veterinarian before treating your horse for lice, as some treatments can cause worsening skin conditions. Treatment commonly includes permethrin-based dust, shampoos and rinses or a veterinarian-administered medication. 

Tips for Preventing Skin Problems in Horses

Here are some ways you can prevent horse skin problems.

  • Keep horses dry and clean: Excessive moisture can harm the protective oils in a horse's coat, making them more susceptible to skin diseases like rain rot. Keep horses dry by outfitting them with lightweight blankets or sheltering them in stalls during heavy rains. Wash your horses regularly, making sure to dry them off afterward.
  • Groom horses regularly: Groom your horse frequently to lower the risk of developing skin conditions and monitor any new or worsening skin conditions.
  • Avoid sharing grooming tools: Many skin problems are highly contagious. Don't share grooming tools among horses. Avoid sharing riding equipment, too, like saddles or girths.
  • Manage insect populations: Flies, lice, mites and other insects are major culprits for contagious skin conditions. Curb insect populations by using natural pest control around your farm. 

If you notice skin problems in your horse, contact your vet to learn the best method to resolve the condition.

Learn More About Horse Care at Horse Tack Co

Horse Tack Co is a Pennsylvania-based resource for equestrians around the country — and we care about your horse's well-being. On our blog, you'll find many resources advising you on how to manage your horse's health. Support your horse by reading our blog, and expand your tool kit by visiting our horse wellness product page.

Have any questions? We'd love to answer them! Contact us online or call us at 866-624-8225.

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