Spring Cleaning for Your Horse

As the longer – and hopefully warmer – days of spring start that annual hair-fest that is the shedding off of our horses, it makes sense to spend a bit of time on skin and coat health.

The first thing many of us do as soon as there’s a warm day is give our horses a bath. A good brisk scrub with a gentle soap (my standby is Ivory dishsoap) helps to loosen up the shedding hair so you can curry, brush or scrape it away. I add a few drops of tea tree and lavender essential oils to deep clean dry, dandruff-prone skin while soothing at the same time. And I condition mane and tail with another old standby – TRESemmé conditioner worked in and left. (It’s not greasy at all, so it works great as a leave-in conditioner. Just let the hair dry and you can comb through without pulling out hairs.)


Leg scurf before (top left) and during (bottom left) the cleaning process. You can use a rubber curry comb (top right) or a nubby bathing mitt (middle right) to work loose the greasy hair, but I find picking with my fingers (bottom right) both more efficient and quicker, an issue for horses that object to the process.

If your horse has very thick hair on his hind legs, pay special attention to the fronts of the cannon bones. Many horses get a waxy, greasy substance in that area that horse owners refer to as “leg crud,” “leg fungus” or “scurf.” It’s often mistaken for urine scald, scratches, a fungal infection or rain rot.

Years ago when I was first trying to figure out why my gelding had these oily, dark-colored patches on the fronts of his stockinged hind legs, the common answer was that it was either a bacterial or fungal infection that needed to be treated with medicated soap or scrubbed with betadine to disinfect and dry out the area. I tried the latter, as well as making up a scrub with quite a lot of tea tree oil. Everything I did seemed to make the condition worse, to increase the size of the affected area.

I started thinking about treatment differently after I happened across an article online naming the condition “cannon keratitis,” basically a case of overactive sebaceous glands, and suggesting it be treated more like acne.

I stopped trying to dry the area out, reasoning that if the skin in the area got dry the sebaceous glands would just keep secreting. So instead I focused on keeping the greasy stuff off – picking it off if it was so thick the hair was stuck down or carefully currying the area if there was only a little waxy buildup. For most horses, including my white-legged gelding, just air and sun seemed to do the trick along with good nutrition and exercise.

I also suggest avoiding oily, chemical fly sprays and drying coat sprays like Show Sheen. To moisten the area to de-scurf I’d spray on my natural fly spray or witch hazel, which seemed to help soothe those horses who hate to have the scurf picked or curried.

I also believe there’s a correlation between the prevalence of cannon keratosis and circulation. As my gelding has aged he’s been more prone to the condition, which also affects the backs of the hind cannons and the areas just above and on the inside of his hocks. I have seen a number of other older horses with the same issues and talked to owners who said the condition didn’t begin until their horses’ activity level declined due to illness, injury or general stiffness.

There’s more information online about the condition these days, with suggested treatments generally focused on drying agents such as from shampoos containing benzoyl peroxide or pine tar or even plain dandruff shampoo. Those might work for some horses, but I suspect for others all the topical drying treatments might work for a short time but won’t ultimately be any better than the betadine I tried so long ago.

On the positive side, my cyber wanderings led me to some interesting products repeatedly referenced as effective by horse owners on the various forums. I have no experience with them, but if you’re adding topicals to your equine care kit you might take a look at these:

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