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Even the relatively gloomy UK climate can pose a threat to equine skin. Ultraviolet (UV) rays affect horses in much the same way as they do humans, the only difference being that horses cannot develop any resistance by tanning — although hair does provide some protection.

Overexposure to sun can leave horses with reddened, scaly skin or, in more severe cases, painful blisters that may ooze a fluid or serum.

Should we stock up on sunscreens to protect sensitive skin?

“Light-skinned horses and those with any areas of white, damaged or depigmented skin are at particular risk from sun damage, even on cloudy days when UV levels may still be high,” says Dr Philip Ivens from Buckingham Equine Vets. “Cover small areas such as the flesh between the nostrils with sunblock — preferably a zinc oxide cream that has antibacterial properties.

“You can use a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) of 30-55, but check the ingredients as some horses are sensitive to the chemical PABA [para-aminobenzoic acid],” he adds. “Look for hypoallergenic sunscreens and those marketed for children, as they are formulated for sensitive skin and offer high levels of protection. Waterproof creams will not wash off in water troughs or on dewy grass, but always spot-test any products not made specifically for horses on a small area of skin in case of adverse reaction.”

Philip explains that excessive UV radiation can incite a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

“The best defence is to provide grazing horses with plenty of field shade in the form of a shelter, thick hedging or trees,” he says. “Reduce exposure by avoiding peak UV times (10am to 3pm) or by turning horses out at night. Face masks and rugs that are UV-resistant are a good idea for horses susceptible to problems.”

Pesky flies

Flies can prove a persistent problem, plaguing horses indoors and out. Ready yourself for the onslaught this summer with advice from H&H vet Karen Coumbe MRCVS of Bell Equine.

“A long-lasting fly spray, applied regularly, can be effective,” she says. “Home-made repellents with oils such as citronella may help, but insecticides known as synthetic pyrethroids — especially permethrin or cypermethrin — offer the best defence against biting horse flies and the small, black flies that commonly feed around the horse’s face, neck and underside. However, try a tiny amount of any fly repellent before more widespread use, as many of the more effective products contain the relatively strong substance DEET, which is used in a variety of mosquito repellents for humans. A patch test on a hairless area of the horse’s inner thigh, if he will tolerate it, will reveal any sensitivity to the ingredients.

“Minimising areas where flies breed and gather will help,” adds Karen, who also advises practising good yard hygiene. “Fly traps or tapes are a good idea, as long as they are fixed securely and placed well out of your horse’s reach.

“Barriers such as face masks, neck covers and anti-midge or turnout rugs can offer excellent protection, but take care that items fit well and are checked regularly. Sadly, we recently had to remove a horse’s eye after he suffered severe ocular trauma when his fly mask slipped.”

Cracked hooves

When it comes to cracked hooves, the answer is not found in a can, according to farrier Fraser Youngson AWCF.

“The main summer challenge is rapid hoof growth,” he says, and explains that warmer temperatures and a boost in nutrition from spring grass are less of a drain on a horse’s metabolism than winter conditions, and promote the development of new horn.

“An effective solution for poor hoof condition is regular shoeing and hoof care. A horse who will go six to seven weeks between farriery sessions in winter will need a trim every four to five weeks maximum in summer. When the clenches have risen and the shoe is becoming loose, damage to the hoof is already occurring.

“Horn quality does tend to deteriorate in summer, especially when the weather changes from wet to dry and back,” adds Fraser, likening hoof horn to wood that shrinks and swells. “Hooves tend to be strongest with constant conditions. Repeated saturation can be problematic, especially in hot weather when they then dry rapidly.

“Products with natural ingredients should do no harm and improve hoof appearance, but regular attention from the farrier is the key to condition,” he says. “Good nutrition should improve long-term hoof health, but weak hooves may benefit from a supplement with a range of ingredients such as zinc, biotin and methionine.”

Leg cooling

Hammering across hard ground in summer can leave a horse feeling sore. David Rowlands MRCVS of Penbode Equine Vets explains the science behind cold therapy.

“The effects of cooling include constriction of blood vessels (known as vasoconstriction) and reduced blood flow, resulting in a decrease in any bleeding or swelling within the soft tissues,” he says. “Nerve conduction is also lessened, reducing pain. A lower metabolic rate, in turn, reduces cell death from hypoxia (insufficient oxygen), which helps preserve tissue health and can shorten healing time.”

A good old-fashioned hose pipe or a bag of chopped ice should do the trick, but may not be practical — especially away from home. Are ice boots, pastes and gels as effective?

“Cold therapy can be achieved via several methods and new products are always evolving,” says David. “But, horses are more likely to tolerate simpler systems.

“The key factor is temperature,” he explains. “To be most effective, tissue temperatures must be reduced to between 15 and 19°C — any lower than 10°C and tissue damage can occur. Timing is critical, especially in the case of acute injury, as cold therapy will have greatest effect if applied immediately and within 48 hours.

Apply cold or iced water for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. In case of soft tissue injury, such as superficial digital flexor tendonitis, further cooling is often required at intervals of between 30 minutes and four hours.

“Avoid applying ice directly to the skin,” adds David, who advises using a damp cloth as a buffer to protect tissue and dissipate the cold.

Electrolyte support

A horse loses around 10g of electrolytes per litre of sweat, according to Natalie McGoldrick MRVCS of South Coast Equine Vets.

“Electrolytes control many bodily functions, including muscle contraction, and play a vital role in the transmission of nerve impulses,” she says. “Hay, chaff, grass and hard feed are typically low in sodium, yet this is a vital thirst regulator.

“Electrolyte deficiencies can cause poor performance and recovery from exercise, as well as exertional rhabdomyolysis (ERM, also known as ‘tying up’),” she adds. “It’s not just competition horses who need electrolytes in the summer months — consider supplementing any horse in work, especially if he has no hard feed.”

What should we look for on the ingredients label?

“Definitely sodium, but also chloride, calcium, magnesium and potassium,” says Natalie, adding that competitors should check the contents for banned substances. “Ideally, an electrolyte supplement should have a high sodium chloride content, less than 5% sugar and not many added extras. Table salt can be used for a horse in very light work, but will not replace the full spectrum of electrolytes.

“Supplements can be fed in paste form, mixed into feed or added to the horse’s water, although the latter can make it difficult to monitor intake and the taste may discourage the horse from drinking,” says Natalie, who recommends giving a supplement daily.

Ref Horse & Hound; 24 May 2018