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Breaking the itch cycle needs diverse strategies

Few things are more frustrating than having a horse with consistent skin and coat problems. Not only can they be uncomfortable and itchy for the horse but skin irritations can often prevent outings to shows and competitions due to their effect on the coat and how it looks.

All horses are at risk of skin irritations from external sources. However, some develop a more severe reaction, which can result in severe itching and subsequent scratching. Major causes of itch include flies, mosquitos and biting midges, also known as Culicoides. Some horses are allergic to bites and have an extreme reaction.

While it is impossible to completely eradicate flying pests, avoidance techniques and environmental management is important. Certain plants as well as dust and mould particles from bedding and hay can stick to and irritate the skin, especially if the horse gets sweaty. Removing offending plants, wetting hay, or altering bedding can help minimise irritants.

Shade and physical barriers are essential for skin protection. Lightweight, light-coloured fly sheets and masks are useful, but they should be kept reasonably clean. Dirt will attract more insects and the combination of sweat and dirt can irritate sensitive skin. Commercial-grade fans will help minimise pests in stabling areas.

Keeping the horse clean is also essential for managing skin conditions as sweat can make the problem worse. Avoid harsh detergents, which can strip the coat of natural protective oils. Consult your veterinarian for a suitable mild shampoo for sensitive horses.

Bug sprays can help but it is important to select a water-based spray with at least 2% active ingredients for it to be effective. Keep an eye on your horse for any adverse reaction to bug repellents.

In terms of diet, omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in marine-derived fish oil supplements and flaxseed flake and oils have anti-inflammatory properties and are potentially helpful for easing inflammation associated with itch and allergy. Although unlikely to cure the problem, omega-3s are a helpful part of sound nutritional support.

A veterinarian will determine if medication is warranted to help break the itch cycle, or if allergy testing would be useful. Although allergy testing is not yet an exact science, it can be a valuable tool for treatment. Allergy treatment is individualised and essentially “retrains” the immune system to reduce reactions to itchy stimuli, which takes time. Shots can take up to a year for maximum effectiveness and even up to 2 years in severe cases, so patience is required.

In conclusion, there is no one answer to solving the problem of the itchy horse. Multiple strategies are necessary, including decreasing exposure to trigger factors, managing the environment and committing to long-term management.

For further assistance and advice on designing a diet for your horse to manage skin conditions and improve coat quality, consult a reputable equine nutrition advisor.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutrition Technical Advisor.