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How To Identify Horse Wounds and Skin Conditions

horses in a field in the winter

Because horses are so big — and some of them, so dopey and uncoordinated — it can be common for them to hurt themselves. Sometimes, the ouchies are more subtle than an open wound, however. Skin conditions often reveal themselves through the symptoms of rough patches or bald spots, and most are treatable without going to the vet. That being said, if you are unsure about treating your animal yourself, always ask for professional help.

We’ll start with types of open wounds, including a picture and a description for each one, then move on to the more difficult-to-identify skin conditions.

As a heads-up, this post contains graphic images of wounds, so if you feel a bit squeamish about that sort of thing, it may be a wise idea not to read on.


An abrasion on a horse's hoof
Photo courtesy of Wag Walking

The major abrasion symptoms of hair loss and redness can be seen in this injury.

Abrasions are any graze caused by contact with a foreign object. This can be anything from rough vegetation to badly placed boots, bandages, saddle, or tack. These injuries are largely superficial, meaning only a few layers of skin are worn away, but as with any wound, care should be taken to ensure that infection doesn’t set in. At certain locations, like near the eye or near a joint, abrasions can lead to more serious injury. Most abrasions can be treated at home, but as always if you notice anything unusual about your horse’s injury, don’t hesitate to call a vet.


An incision on the bottom of a horse's leg
Photo courtesy of the Townsend Equine Health Research Fund

This small wound may not look too serious, but the main concern when considering incisions — or any other minor wound — is location.

An incision is generally characterized by clean, straight edges. They may bleed frequently at first, and if they are in the wrong place, they can be quite serious. However, most incisions close quickly and don’t present much of a problem to a horse’s overall health.


A laceration on a horse's forehead
Photo courtesy of Kathy’s Dusty Trails

Significantly uglier than incisions, and also harder to treat, lacerations can be a difficult problem for horse owners.

Surrounded by torn skin flaps, lacerations are common on the various areas of the face, feet, and legs. They can be caused by anything from contact with rough and sharp areas on fences or barn fixtures, or even — like laceration in the photo above — from play between friends that becomes a bit too feisty. The most important consideration when dealing with a laceration is to stop bleeding, prevent infection, and repair it without any further injuries. Only the most minor of lacerations can be treated without immediate attention from a vet, and even then be cautious to ensure that it does not become infected.


A puncture wound on a horse
Photo courtesy of My Horse Forum

As can be seen here, puncture wounds can be relatively small, but they are often also deep.

Punctures are tricky because they can be too small to spot without first causing swelling — which means that infection may have already set in. Although they are small in terms of surface area, the danger comes when they are deep, dirty, or have a chance of reaching vital organs or joints. The wound may even still contain foreign material from whatever caused it. This is one case in which a vet should be called immediately, as it is often difficult to assess the severity of a puncture without a high level of expertise.


De-gloving on a horse's leg
Photo courtesy of Conley and Koontz Equine Hospital

Easily of the ugliest of the wounds, de-gloving is exactly what it sounds like.

De-gloving occurs when a portion of skin is stripped from a leg or torso, which can damage an extensive portion of skin and underlying tissue, but rarely reach any vital organs, joints or bones. Leg de-gloving often occurs when a horse’s leg is trapped, and they attempt to withdraw it. Again, it should be relatively obvious that a vet should be called immediately in this situation. Although there is often no direct threat to a horse’s life, a major concern is the loss of skin or its blood flow, which can lead to further complications.

With all of these wounds, be sure that your horse is vaccinated against tetanus as even the smallest scratch can be a haven for the bacteria.

Since you are now more familiar with the different types of open wounds, we can move on to a bit of a more complicated topic — the skin conditions that may affect your horse. These can often stem from what at first seems to be simply a bald patch or a particularly scruffy bit of skin, but they may be caused by a variety of fungus or bacteria. Many of these conditions require specific treatments or can be indicative of more serious issues that have compromised your horse’s immune system, so if you are even the slightest bit unsure about your horse’s skin condition, contact your vet.


Warts on a horse's nose
Photo courtesy of Conley and Koontz Equine Hospital

Warts often appear in small clusters on the muzzle, around the eyes, on the ears, the genitals, or the lower legs.

These small growths often resemble a cauliflower and are most common in young horses. Luckily, they don’t cause any pain and are not a serious issue unless they begin to impede eating or blinking. They will usually disappear without any treatment as the young horse’s immune system develops. However, if they don’t appear to be leaving, contact your vet as they may instead be sarcoids or another similar-looking disease.


Gray patches caused by rainrot
Photo courtesy of Of Horse

Rainrot symptoms include gray patches and loss of hair in the affected areas.

These scabby, gray crusts form as a result chronic dampness, as the name suggests, and they will eventually peel off to reveal small, ovular bare patches. This infection is caused by a bacteria that regularly resides on the skin but multiplies in moist conditions. Older or diseased horses may be more susceptible to this infection, as their immune system is often not strong enough to effectively fight it off.

Rainrot is uncomfortable for the horse, and should be treated as soon as possible. The first step is, of course, to get your horse to a dry, sheltered location. The horse should be treated daily for a week with topical shampoos and rinses labeled as rainrot treatment. If the condition persists after a week, it’s time to call up our old friend the vet.


Mange lesions on a horse's face
Photo courtesy of Research Gate

On this horse’s face you can see the little bald spots caused by a rare type of mange.

Typically affecting draft horses with feathering on their lower legs, mange is caused by tiny mites that can barely be seen by the naked eye. More rarely, horses may develop lesions around their face, neck, groin, or under their mane or tail. These are also caused by mange, and appear as small, round bumps that quickly turn into bald spots.

It will eventually lead to thickening of the skin, which can cause problems with joint movement. This is another case in which the condition should be addressed immediately, as not only is it uncomfortable for the horse, it also threatens to impede their movement. There are many topical treatments that address mange, and as usual, if it appears to be a severe case or just will not go away, call up your vet.


Small white lice on a horse's coat
Photo courtesy of Pool House Vets

The little white creatures on the horse above are lice.

Speaking of nasty parasites, lice are not just for humans — horses, with their abundance of thick fur, also attract these tiny creatures. The first sign of a lice infection is usually hair loss from excessive itching of an area. These insects can actually be seen if the affected area is examined closely, and eggs are often attached to hairs nearby. Lice are extremely itchy for the horse, and have the possibility of causing anemia, so they should be treated right away.

There are many topical treatments out there that may be effective, but be sure to read the instructions — some need to thoroughly coat the skin, and some may be irritating to small cuts. The treatment should also be repeated two weeks later to kill those that had not yet hatched during the last treatment.

Aural Plaques

White aural plaques inside a horse's ear
Photo courtesy of Vetlink of Parker

Although ugly, aural plaques aren’t typically harmful.

Aural plaques appear flat, white lesions within a horse’s ear. They’re not painful for the horse, unless irritated by biting flies, and pulling them off physically can inflame the ear. They don’t shrink on their own, so if treatment is necessary, the vet will likely prescribe a topical treatment that will stimulate the immune system around the ear to eliminate the lesions. As aural plaques are caused by a virus carried by biting flies, ensure that your horse is protected against these creatures to prevent this problem.


Scabby bald patches caused by ringworm
Photo courtesy of Of Horse

The gray, scabby patches that are characteristic of ringworm can be seen on this horse.

Caused by a highly infectious fungus, once ringworm affects one horse, the highest priority should be preventing it from affecting others. Lesions will most often appear under the saddle or girth, or on the face, neck, or shoulders. As soon as you notice these lesions, they should be treated, since if they are not it is likely that the ringworm will spread to other horses.

The first step in treating ringworm is to remove the scabs if the horse will allow you. Then treat the area with antifungal antiseptic and ointment. With ringworm, prevention is often more effective than treatment after the fact. Keep separate tack and grooming boxes for all horses, and if breakout occurs, be sure to disinfect everything with which the affected horse may have come into contact. Also, make sure you’re not the one to catch ringworm next — wear gloves when handling your horse.

Though horses may be big, in some respects they are also fragile, so make sure to take good care of your huge, clumsy friends. The earlier you can spot these wounds and conditions, the better, and even though you may be able to treat some of them on your own, don’t even hesitate to call your vet if something seems seriously amiss.

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