Protecting your horse from sun exposure

Too much sun exposure can put your horse at risk of skin and eye damage, as well as cancer. Here’s how to protect him from dangerous UV rays.

During the summer, the glorious rays of the sun shine much stronger and longer. Although some sun is beneficial and necessary, a horse’s health can suffer negative effects when he’s exposed too long to the sun’s rays. Results can vary from skin and eye damage to immune system suppression and possibly skin cancer. By providing protection and knowing the signs of skin problems caused by the sun, your horse can still enjoy those summer rays.

Common skin issues

  • The skin is very sensitive to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Photosensitization is an abnormal reaction to sunlight. It is characterized by redness, localized swelling, sensitivity to touch, weeping of fluid and even skin peeling. It can be induced by medications such as tetracycline antibiotics, or by consuming or coming into direct skin contact with St. John’s wort, perennial rye grass or burr trefoil.
  • The skin condition called scratches is also considered to be related to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Often located on the heel and back of the pastern, this issue produces hair loss, swelling, sensitivity and ulceration. It often turns chronic and is hard to treat.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is a common skin cancer found in horses. Although most often located on the genitals or eyes, it can erupt anywhere on the body. Horses with pink skin that absorbs more ultraviolet light, resulting in sunburn, are more prone to this condition. Genetics also has a large influence, as in horses with blue or unpigmented eyes.

“Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common tumor of the equine eye and surrounding tissue. The mean age of onset is around ten years and the incidence is higher in drafts, Appaloosas and geldings.”

— Dr. Robert N. Oglesby, DVM

Signs of skin cancer include sores that don’t heal, bleeding ulcerations, and visible skin tumors. Early diagnosis is important. If you are ever faced with cancer in your horse, consider adding a holistic vet to your team.

Prevention is the key

The single most important thing people can do is protect their equine partners (especially at-risk breeds with pink non-pigmented skin) from the damaging rays of the sun. But this is often easier said than done. Fly masks can protect the eye and unpigmented skin on the face, but an extension is needed for horses with pink noses. Masks can irritate some horses and they tend to rub them off or get them caught things. They are still worth the effort in protecting the face, although they do nothing for other parts of the body.

The most harmful ultraviolet rays are strongest in the summer, between 10 am and 4 pm. Being closer to the equator and at a higher altitude increases their strength as well. A shade structure in your paddock allows your horse to choose protection not just from the sun but from the rain as well. Even a simple awning or three-sided building provides a break from the sun’s rays. Over-the-counter human sunscreen may seem like a good idea, but no matter what the SPF, you’ll need to re-apply it every two hours.

As well, many horses hate the smell and the product can irritate their skin because of the chemicals and preservatives used for compounding. These products have even been known to intensify the skin problems in some animals. They are also dirt collectors because of their greasy consistency. Some sunscreens, often gels or lotions, are marketed for horses but again, watch for irritating chemicals. Remember that many horses dunk their noses in the water tank and may wind up ingesting some sunscreen residue.

Nature may have the answer

As is often the case, Mother Nature may offer the best sun protection options. Pat Coleby, author of Natural Horse Care, suggests supplementing at-risk horses with vitamin H or PABA (Para Amino Benzoic Acid), which can help decrease the effects of sunburn and sunstroke. Natural minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are also very efficient as physical sun blockers and are safe, nontoxic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and will stay on all day with only one application. They can often be applied wet or dry. There are two such products on the market.

Finally, especially when it comes to skin cancer, remember the importance of a healthy immune system. Diet, gut health and other care practices all affect a horse’s ability to fight off cancer. Go ahead and enjoy the dog days of summer. Just be sure to provide your horse with sun protection, and get prompt veterinary attention for any sores that don’t heal. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to protect yourself!

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When Bonnie Riedl, a licensed esthetician and LPN who lives in Arizona, noticed her paint horses were experiencing sunburn, she set out to do something about it. She began working with different formulas in an effort to create a topical product that would provide authentic, non-allergenic skin protection for her equine family. Initially, she tested it on her own horses and had wonderful results. Bonnie then conferred with several equine veterinarians and found them to be equally excited about the product.