Scratches, mud fever, dew poisoning, or greasy heels. Whatever you call it, this skin infection plagues horses exposed to muddy and wet conditions especially present during the winter. Treating persistent scratches can seem like an intimidating job. However, we’ve put together some tips for keeping your horse’s legs clean and clear all year long.
What Are Scratches?
Identified by the characteristic swollen, chapped skin, scratches are usually found on the horse’s lower legs and pasterns. White markings with pink skin underneath are particularly sensitive and therefore more susceptible to infection. When the skin is wet, it becomes more vulnerable to microorganism invasions. This can leave the skin painful and covered in scabs. While wet legs are the most common cause for scratches, this infection can also be caused by sand caught under the boots or wraps or dirty bedding in the stall.
Proactive treatment and management is key to keeping your horse’s legs free of infection. Luckily, if your horse develops scratches, there are plenty of products on the market to help combat the infection.
If your horse has a severe case with large, hard scabs, it’s important to soften these scabs before removing them. Neglecting this step can be very painful to your horse and cause unnecessary bleeding. One product we love for softening the scratches is EquiFit’s AgSilver CleanBalm. In addition to its antimicrobial properties, this petroleum-based ointment helps soften the skin and makes it easier to treat the infection.
Once the scabs are soft enough to remove easily, you should wash the infected area daily. EQyss Micro-Tek is a gentle, pH-balanced shampoo that helps soothe irritated skin. Available in a shampoo or a spray, this product helps relieve itching and promote healing. For more severe cases, you can try KineticVet’s EquiShield CK Shampoo. This shampoo is a prescription-strength medicated shampoo that helps combat tough bacterial and fungal infections. This shampoo contains Chlorhexidine Gluconate and Ketoconazole to provide a strong, deep-cleaning disinfectant shampoo. In a pinch, gentle dish soaps such as Ivory or Dawn can also help keep the area clean and manage minor irritations.
Using any of these soaps, gently scrub the legs with a soft mitt such as the Epona Ulta Mitt, or with your hands, to remove the scabs. This is a process, not a quick fix. If there are scabs that aren’t soft enough to fall off easily you should wait to remove them.
Dry and Apply
After washing with the proper strength shampoo or soap, it is crucial to thoroughly dry the legs. Using a clean, dry towel, gently rub down the horse’s legs. You should pay particular attention to the crevices in and around the pastern and heel bulbs. Keep working until the legs are completely dry, with no damp hairs left.
Once the legs are dry, apply a topical ointment or cream to continue softening the remaining scabs and help heal the damaged skin. Elemental Equine’s Skin Salvation contains natural, show-safe oils and butters to help soothe the skin and promote healing. This product is available in a spray or a salve depending on your preference.
Once you’ve successfully treated the active infection, it’s important to practice good horse management to prevent it from coming back. While mud exposure can be unavoidable during the winter, washing and drying the horse’s legs after being turned out or ridden in the mud will help prevent an infection.
Similarly, washing the sand off your horse’s legs, especially when away at competitions where there could be unknown microorganisms in the footing, helps prevent the sand from irritating your horse’s skin. EquiFit’s SilverSox not only have the same antimicrobial powers of the AgSilver line but can also help keep your horse’s lower legs and pasterns protected against sand and dirt while you ride.
No matter how you decide to help protect your horse against scratches, checking the legs every day will help you stay on top of their skin health and get a head start on any infections before they grow into a major problem.
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Want to learn more about keeping your horse’s legs in good condition? Check out our blog post on hoof care products here!
Related Records: All Horse Systems Go, Loving, Nancy S. DVM, 2006 p. 367 – 371