Scratches, mud fever, dew poisoning, or greasy heels. Whatever you call it, this skin infection plagues horses exposed to muddy and wet conditions throughout the year. 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.

What Are Scratches?

Scratches, identified by the characteristic swollen, chapped skin, 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 of scratches, this infection can also be caused by sand caught under the boots, wraps, or dirty bedding in the stall.

Proactive treatment and management are key to keeping your horse’s legs free of infection. Luckily, if your horse develops scratches, plenty of products are on the market to help combat the infection.

Treating Scratches

1. Soften

VetSet Cocoa Butter for Scratches treatment in horses available at FarmVet

If your horse has a severe case with large, hard scabs, softening them before removing them is important. Neglecting this step can hurt your horse and cause unnecessary bleeding. One product we love for softening the scratches is VetSet Cocoa Butter. The unique blend of cocoa butter, vitamin E, and microcrystalline waxes provides a semi-occlusive coating to protect the area while softening and moisturizing.

2. Wash

Kinetic Vet EquiShield CK Shampoo for Scratches treatment in Horses available at FarmVet

Another important step is to wash the infected area daily. Once the scabs are softened, this step will also help remove them. For severe cases, we recommend Kinetic Vet’s EquiShield CK Shampoo. This prescription-strength medicated shampoo contains chlorhexidine gluconate and ketoconazole, which help combat tough bacterial and fungal infections.

Cavalor Derma Wash to treat Dermatitis in Horses available at FarmVet

Cavalor’s Derma Wash is an excellent option for less severe cases or to avoid recurrence. It is pH-balanced to avoid disrupting the skin’s natural microflora, which is necessary for proper healing and maintaining healthy skin down the road.

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.

3. 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. Drying immediately rather than allowing the legs to air dry will help create that unfriendly, dry environment so fungus or bacteria cannot continue to grow.

Elemental Equine Skin Salvation for Treatment of Scratches in Horses

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 was formulated with specific ingredients to combat scratches, including zinc oxide, fenbendazole, and natural butter and oils to promote healing. Some of our other favorite treatment options include Equiderma Zinc Oxide Paste, Absorbine’s Silver Honey Vet Strength Scratches Spray, or, for severe cases, Kinetic Vet Equishield CK HC Salve.

Preventing Future Infections

Once you’ve successfully treated the active infection, practicing good horse management is important to prevent it from returning. While mud exposure can be unavoidable during damp seasons, 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. Remember to towel dry its legs after washing, especially if your horse is prone to scratches.

Additionally, some products can help avoid the recurrence of scratches. EquiFit AgSilver Daily Strength CleanTalc is a therapeutic powder that helps prevent bacterial or fungal growth. It is all-natural and free of antibiotics – it instead contains ionic silver, a smart element that naturally has antimicrobial properties. This makes it a great option for daily use. 

During rides or turnout, you may also consider using EquiFit’s SilverSox. These wraps not only have the 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 daily will help you stay on top of their skin health and get a head start on any infections before they become a major problem.

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Learn More

Want to learn more about keeping your horse’s legs in good condition? Check out our blog on treating skin issues here!