The skin is like a window on the body, and its health reflects what’s going on within. A holistic and proactive approach is the best way to combat common equine skin diseases.
It has been said the eyes are the windows of the soul. In much the same way, the skin could be considered a window on the body, because the health of the skin and hair coat gives us a metaphorical glimpse of the state of things within. The take-away message here could be summed up in one short sentence: it takes a healthy interior to have a healthy exterior.
So it should come as no surprise that skin diseases are common in horses who have been neglected – and even in those who have not. The skin, including the hair follicles and the oil and sweat glands,* is supplied with the same blood as flows through every other organ and tissue in the body. Disorder in any of the major organs or body systems will inevitably be reflected, in some way, in the health and function of the skin and hair coat. The digestive system has a particularly strong influence on the skin and coat.
The skin as a boundary
From a more philosophical perspective, the skin is the physical perimeter or boundary of the body. Mental and emotional boundaries extend way beyond the skin’s surface, in the form of the body’s bio-energetic field and in specific postures, expressions and other behaviors whose influences range to the limits of communication from one individual to another. Even so, mental and emotional processes are generated within, so disorders in these aspects of being are also manifested, among other places, in the skin.
In this respect then, skin diseases may be seen as a boundary issue. For example, horses with persistent or recurrent skin conditions often have an air of vulnerability about them, whether or not they have a history of abuse or neglect. In some, there is simply an inherited susceptibility to injury or infection. And in classic chicken-or-egg fashion, these are often horses who have been neglected, abandoned or abused.
Horses with chronic skin conditions tend to manifest a certain lack of strength, resilience or resources needed to maintain healthy boundaries. They might be quite talented and accomplished athletes or they may be individuals with vigorous defenses, yet there is a sensitivity about them that causes them to be easily overwhelmed and their boundaries breached. It may be quite subtle, but typically it’s there somewhere. These horses need help shoring up their boundaries for the skin condition to be completely and permanently resolved.
“The terrain is everything”
By now it should be clear that attaching the correct medical label to a skin disease is only part of the solution, and the lesser part at that. For example, it hardly matters which particular microbe has invaded the skin when the greater concern is that any microbe has been permitted to enter and establish residence. As Louis Pasteur, the father of modern microbiology, is said to have stated on his deathbed, “The microbe is nothing; the terrain is everything.”
The same is true for external parasites. Healthy bodies have healthy boundaries, so healthy bodies resist parasitic invasion. Parasitism in healthy bodies is typically occasional, mild and transient. Wounds also heal quickly and uneventfully in healthy bodies. That is, after all, what the body is designed to do – be self-maintaining and self-repairing.
So what does it take to get an ailing or depleted body healthy, so that it’s once again able to resolve and resist infection and infestation?
1. A healthy diet
On the physical front, a healthy diet is the single most important element to restoring health and resolving disease, including skin diseases. The body must be supplied with the full complement of nutrients it needs to get and stay well.
In horses with persistent or recurrent skin conditions, the following nutrients are particularly important:
Calories – In underweight horses, providing adequate calories is a priority, as the body cannot function properly without sufficient energy to run its various cellular processes. But by the same token, obesity is often accompanied by immune system compromise and unhealthy skin and coat. Good quality forages (pasture, grass and legume hays, other herbage) are the best source of calories for adult horses.
Protein – Adequate protein is often lacking in the diets of malnourished horses, as is a full spectrum of essential amino acids (those that cannot be made by the body, so must be supplied by the diet). The immune system is one of the first to be compromised in horses with inadequate protein or essential amino acid intake – skin health and hair/hoof growth also suffers. Good quality mature forages (both grasses and legumes) grown in healthy soils, and the microbes found on or in them, are the best source of protein and amino acids for adult horses.
Fiber – Fiber is an often overlooked and underfed nutritional requirement in horses. It is essential because it feeds gut microbes, which then feed the horse. When good grazing is unavailable, feeding a mix of good quality grass and legume hays at a rate of about 2% of the horse’s ideal body weight per day (around 20 pounds a day for a 1,000-pound horse) provides adequate fiber as well as calories, protein and essential amino acids.
Vitamins A and E – These vitamins have various roles, including skin cell repair and replacement, and immune system function. Carotenes (pro-vitamin A) and tocopherolstocotrienols (vitamin E complex) are found in abundance in fresh forages, but levels in hay decline with storage. Good quality alfalfa and other deep-green forages are good, natural whole food sources of these vitamins for horses. Carrots are a good supplemental source of vitamin A and oily seeds and nuts are good sources of extra vitamin E.
Vitamin C – Among other functions, vitamin C is essential for tissue repair and a healthy immune system. Horses are able to produce their own vitamin C, but supplementation is often helpful during periods of stress or illness and in senior horses. Good natural sources of vitamin C for horses include deep-green forages and rose hips.
Trace minerals – The body needs several different trace minerals for good health. Those particularly important for skin health include copper, zinc, selenium and iodine. The optimal range is quite narrow for all these minerals, and there are some complex interactions among minerals, so avoid over-supplementation – too much can be worse than too little. Where soils are lacking in trace minerals, chlorella and other blue-green algae (e.g. spirulina, AFA algae) and naturally occurring clays such as azomite are the best natural sources for horses. Kelp and other sea vegetables are a good source of iodine, but ideally terrestrial plants should be used for terrestrial animals.
Omega-3 fatty acids – These essential fatty acids are important for various reasons, including skin and coat health. As with vitamins A and E, these nutrients are found in abundance in fresh forages, but are lacking in unsupplemented hay-based diets. Good, natural whole food sources for horses include fresh plant material, hempseed, flax seed, walnuts and fresh (i.e. unoxidized) blue-green algae.
Antioxidants – Several of the vitamins and trace minerals mentioned above have antioxidant properties – even so, additional plant-sourced antioxidants can be very helpful in horses with chronic skin disease. Feed a wide variety of fresh forages, and when fresh is unavailable, dried herbs and/or blue-green algae.
2. Healthy gut
The health of the skin and coat directly reflects the health of the gut. It is essential to maintain (and when necessary replenish) a diverse and robust population of gut microbes and a healthy gut environment. Gut microbes are essential for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption, and for a healthy and fully operational immune system that neither over- nor under-responds.
This topic warrants an article all its own. For now, suffice it to say that the best and most natural way for horses to support and restore a healthy gut environment and microflora is by grazing healthy pastures on healthy soils, shared with healthy horses on healthy diets that are passing healthy manure.
When such grazing is unavailable or inadvisable, a well chosen probiotic product may be used instead, although this approach is decidedly second best. Probiotic products with a broad spectrum of microbial species in moderate dosages are most likely to restore a healthy population of microbes, and least likely to disrupt the balance of those already in residence. There are at least several hundred different species of bacteria in the equine gut. It is this diversity that gives the system its power and resilience, and it’s what we should be trying to reproduce with our interventions. My favorite probiotic product is Primal Defense (Garden of Life).
3. Healthy environment
Providing a clean, dry environment is important, particularly for skin conditions that are precipitated or worsened by wet or mucky conditions. Common examples include Dermatophilus infection (rain scald or rain rot) and pastern dermatitis (mud fever, greasy heel, scratches). In fact, it is not uncommon for these skin conditions to clear up just by providing a healthy diet and a clean, dry environment. Excessive wetness of the skin is also a common pre-condition to recurring episodes of lymphedema/lymphangitis, where one or both hind legs develop massive and painful swelling, often with oozing sores.
On the mental-emotional front, providing a safe, secure, yet stimulating environment is essential. Being a herd species, horses need compatible company to feel secure and stimulated. Social isolation is very difficult for most horses to endure – sometimes more difficult than social discord or upheaval. Confinement and boredom are the twin enemies of mental and emotional well-being. In short, loving social bonds are as important as fresh air, clean water and dry bedding. While some skin conditions, such as lice and ringworm, are spread from horse to horse, isolation is not the answer to preventing or managing these problems.
The treatment of specific skin conditions is beyond the scope of any article, so let me finish by listing some of the items I most often use to help a horse recover from skin conditions.
Gentle soap or shampoo – An unscented, skin-friendly soap such as Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap for babies is ideal for cleaning contaminated wounds and oozing or crusty skin lesions. The goal is to avoid destroying the skin’s normal microflora (which are just as important as the gut microbes), while removing dirt or discharge from the affected area.
Colloidal silver – Silver in ionic or colloidal form is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent, effective against a wide range of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. It can be used topically on wounds and skin lesions caused by microbial infections – a concentration of 10 parts per million (ppm) is sufficient and does not sting or cause irritation.
Flower essences – These can be very helpful with the mentalemotional component of the horse’s recovery – my favorites are those from Green Hope Farm. Other plant essences – I often use medicinal herbs in essence form, especially when I need to address mental-emotional health as well as physical signs of disorder. For example, nettles help with boundary issues, frankincense with wound repair and bioenergetic stability, and wild oat with resilience (strength with flexibility).
Trace elements – Trace elements in ionic or colloidal form can work wonders when used topically. A simple preparation can be made at home by starting with a concentrated solution of a natural trace mineral-rich salt (e.g. Himalayan pink salt), diluting it 1:10 in spring water and shaking vigorously. The finished preparation can be sprayed or gently dabbed onto wounds and skin infections.
Homeopathics – I most often use the low-potency combination homeopathic remedies by Heel, Inc. Graphites homaccord is one of my favorites for chronic skin infections. Single homeopathic remedies take a bit more training to learn and use properly, but they can be very effective, too.
Adaptogenic herbs – The adaptogens are a diverse group of plants that help the body cope with stress. They are useful in chronic skin conditions of all kinds because they support healthy immune function and tissue repair as well as mentalemotional well-being. My favorite combination is APF Pro by Auburn Labs.
Finally, I’d like to end with a brief note about endocrine (hormonal) disorders in horses with chronic skin disease. Consider having a horse with any non-healing wound or chronic skin lesion tested or treated for equine Cushing’s disease (a disorder of the pituitary gland and hypothalamus) particularly if the horse is in his teens or beyond. *The hoof is part of the same system as the skin – the integumentary system, which forms the contiguous outer surface of the body.