Mud: how to tackle it and help prevent the health issues it can bring horses

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  • Mud is an inevitable part of winter. Helen Triggs checks out how to minimise the damage with advice from some industry experts on the perils of mud and how to navigate your way through winter with your horse as safely as possible

    No one likes mud – it’s cold, wet, sticky and gets everywhere. Even worse, it can cause injuries and medical complications for the horse. But while winter’s ever-present hazard is unavoidable, there are strategies to take away some of the pain.

    In most situations, mud is more of an inconvenience than a serious problem. If your horse has even a generous amount of dried mud on his coat, it may be unsightly but it often won’t do any harm. Unless infection takes a hold, the horse’s coat and feathers are his best protection. But for those whose season covers the colder months, they have to confront the elements head-on.

    Dealing with sweaty, muddy horses and tack is all in a day’s work for Beaufort hunt groom Margaret Hopkins.

    “Last winter was a nightmare,” she says. “We put pig oil on the legs and tummy, and petroleum jelly under the boots and in the heels before we go hunting. We keep horse-washing to a minimum because it strips the horses’ natural oils, leaving them more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections.

    “In summer washing is fine as they soon dry off, but leaving a horse cold and wet too long puts stress on their immune system. However, if they are soaking wet and plastered with mud, we’ll wash them off with a medicated shampoo, to combat bacterial and fungal skin disorders, and make sure they’re scraped and towelled dry before they go to their stables. My rule is that if they arrive home wet, they are washed off, but if they are dry, the mud is brushed off.

    “We then bandage all round and use Thermatex rugs to wick away the wet. Horses that are likely to break out in a sweat will have their rugs changed until they are dry. A solarium is on my wish list!”

    Horse owners often debate whether to clip out horses’ legs, as the coat does provide some protection but makes it hard to dry and treat sore skin.

    Showing and dressage star Louise Bell says, “With horses prone to mud fever I clip the hair on the legs but with a blade that leaves a bit of coat on. I always wash off, but legs must be dried as they are more prone to mud fever.”

    David Sheerin, general manager of Wellington Riding, tends to leave the hairier school horses’ legs unclipped.

    “They come in to dry and then are brushed off. We’d rather sacrifice looking clean over causing skin infections.”

    If not treated, mud fever can lead to long-term conditions such as vasculitis. The key is constant inspection of the horse’s legs for early signs of soreness and scabs, treating the infection and then allowing the skin’s natural barrier to heal. There are a variety of remedies for mud fever, properly named pastern dermatitis, as horses tend to respond differently. The best prevention is to bring the horse in from the field for some time every day to allow the legs to dry out and to be inspected.

    Janet Littlewood MRCVS, a specialist in equine dermatology, acknowledges mud fever is a massive problem. Mud can cause surface damage to the skin of the legs, and even the body, which allows bacterial organisms such as Dermatophilus or Staphylococcus to take hold and cause infection.

    “If the mud fever is chronic, it can be difficult to deal with and other bugs get in on the act,” says Janet. “Dermatophilus spores are extremely persistent in the environment and can last in the soil for over a year. UV skin damage on unpigmented skin and age can also be contributory factors that increase the risk
    of infection.

    “It’s important to keep limbs dry and clean. Once scabs appear they must be removed with a disinfectant in an area which can be cleaned afterwards to avoid recontamination. A residual disinfectant spray or mousse can also be applied to the lower limbs to help prevent reinfection.”

    Janet recommends drying legs with paper towels rather than fabric towels which, if not hot-washed, can harbour infection.

    Muddy fields and going can also have implications for the horse’s feet. For example, if your horse has pads or packing in his shoes, sloppy mud can get in and accumulate underneath, so in winter it may be best to avoid these if possible.

    “When the ground gets poached we see a lot more overreaches and lost shoes as the horse can’t move his front legs quickly enough out of the way of the hindlegs,” says Team GBR farrier Andrew Bowyer. “Often we have to be more conservative when fitting the shoes.

    “If it’s really wet, the horn of the foot gets soft and shoes can pull off a bit more often. If the shoe does come off, clean the foot and apply a wet or dry poultice secured with duct tape and cohesive bandage until the farrier comes.

    “In wet weather the feet absorb a lot of moisture. In my opinion, a shavings bed is best at wicking away the moisture,” adds Andrew.

    If dealing with muddy horses is time-consuming, their caked tack, rugs and boots are equally a chore, especially for horses hunting several times a week.

    “Once we’ve cleaned off the mud from the tack, we towel-dry the leather – there’s no point in putting saddle soap on wet leather as it won’t absorb,” recommends Margaret Hopkins. “We use cotton webbing girths and brush them off when they are dry.”

    Anna Millward of Shires Equestrian says, “Avoid using pressure washers or stiff brushes to remove mud from rugs as this will break down the coating on the fabric. Let the rug dry thoroughly and use a soft brush or gentle hose to remove the mud.”

    Hose mud off boots, including fastenings, and let them dry naturally.

    As with all problems, prevention is better than cure. To prevent mud in the winter, you need to prepare your fields in the summer. However, this is often only remembered in the autumn, as you stand on the opposite side of a muddy gateway to your horse, realising he isn’t going to walk through it unless you fetch him.

    The best solution is a non-slip concrete in the gateway or around the water trough. A cheaper solution is to remove the top soil and lay a ground membrane. Put down a layer of stone topped off with smaller stone or tarmac planings. You could also use a plastic grid system where the grass grows through and makes the area resistant to poaching.

    Mud isn’t pleasant, but with careful management and preparation it needn’t bog you down.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 November 2020

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