Most people see horsehair as the horse’s mane and tail, but horses are covered in a hairy coat. This coat grows and sheds, just like a dog’s. But sometimes, you end up with a horse that has bald patches, randomly loses hair, and ends up with scarring of their skin. Why does alopecia or hair loss happen, and what do you do about hair loss on your beautiful horse’s skin?
Horses lose hair as part of their seasonal shedding, but they can also lose hair in patches across their body for other reasons. These include injuries, allergic reactions, fungal infections, and ringworm, not to mention negative habitual rubbing.
Deciding on a treatment plan for your horse’s alopecia will depend on what is causing their hair loss. Where the hair is falling out on your horse’s body will give you a clue to what cause of hair loss you are dealing with. Common causes include mange or sweet itch, ringworm, ill-fitting tack, mud fever, and parasite-caused sensitivity.
Let’s look at these causes and what to do about each.
Horse alopecia, or baldness, can occur naturally. Horses naturally shed hair at the start and end of each season, but this occurs predominantly at the beginning and end of winter. As part of your horse care routine, you should brush your horse daily to help them shed by removing loose hair. There are even special shedding brushes, gloves, and combs for this purpose.
When your horse loses hair in balding patches, it usually means there’s a problem. You will instantly notice the skin begins to look unnatural where the hair has fallen out. It may seem hornish or raw, indicating your horse has a skin condition that requires treatment.
When your horse’s skin condition has improved, it will take at least six to eight weeks for the new hair growth to show. During this time, your horse’s skin will be vulnerable to rubbing, sunburn, and insect strike. Be sure to protect your horse’s tender skin until the hair has regrown to protect it.
Treating horse alopecia is a long-term process, and you will have to be diligent and patient. Healing and recovery don’t happen quickly.
Why Hair Loss Is Bad for Horses
Apart from the cosmetic and aesthetic concerns that may accompany alopecia in horses, the impact on your horse’s health should take prime consideration. Hair loss in horses can lead to:
- Secondary Skin Infections and Open Sores
- Painful Scar Tissue Forming
- Touch Sensitivity
- Negative Ridden Performance
Your horse’s body hair is a natural barrier to light scrapes and insects. When your horse has lost a large amount of body hair, it makes them vulnerable to skin-based infections like rain rot and dry skin, and it can cause minor wounds to become more serious ones if not treated.
Repeated rubbing on skin that is already hairless can cause serious scar tissue to form. This can be painful to your horse. We often see this in cases where the hair loss is due to saddle sores.
The skin where there has been alopecia can become sensitive to touch. You may struggle with a horse whose skin feels painful and agitated.
A horse that is required to perform, whether it’s for competition or for their daily work, will not be able to give their best performance when they are bothered by painful or raw skin that has formed due.
Different Causes and Treatments of Horse Hair Loss
Horsehair loss is caused by several common issues. They include:
- Sweet Itch
- Mud Fever
- Ring Worm
- Skin Irritation
- Poor Nutrition
1. Sweet Itch Causes Hair Loss
Mange and sweet itch are summer problems, and horse owners often experience this condition happening to their horses when the “insect season” starts. Biting gnats, midges, and Culcoides irritate and bug horses.
Culicoides are the most common type of biting insect. There are over 200 species of Culicoides. Each species tends to bite in specific areas of the horse. Regardless of where you live, you probably have many species of Culicoides.
2. Mange Causes Patchy Hair Loss
The face, neck, and chest are prime areas for mange to occur. It looks similar to Sweet Itch. In fact, many horse owners use the terms interchangeably. But, there are technical differences between Mange and Sweet Itch. Mange is caused by reactions to mite bites.
Mites burrow and bite into the horse’s skin. The symptoms are similar to Sweet Itch, but Mange usually happens in the fall and cooler months of the year, while Sweet Itch is often a warmer month problem.
There are 5 types of Horse Mange:
- Leg Mange: Most often affects draft horses, but affects all breeds. The most common form of Mange. Usually appears around the foot and fetlock. May cause foot stamping or rubbing against the other leg.
- Demodectic Mange: Rare in horses. Often occurs on the face, shoulders, neck, and forelimbs.
- Psoroptic Mange: Rare in horses. Appears in areas of thick hair such as under the forearm, mane, base of the tail, under chin, hindlegs, udder, and in the armpit. Thick lesions usually develop. May cause head shaking.
- Trombiculidiasis (Harvest Mange): Caused by larvae of certain breeds of mites. It affects the face, especially the lips, and feet.
- Straw Itch: Caused by mites that live in straw. Areas affected will depend on where the horse is fed. Face and neck are usually affected when fed from a hayrack, while the muzzle and legs are affected when horses eat from the ground.
Signs of Mange and Sweet Itch
While mange and sweet itch isn’t exactly the same thing, these two skin conditions present the same and are treated the same. Symptoms include raw, rubbed spots on your horse’s cheeks, neck, throat latch area, around the ears. Reactions on their chest indicate that your horse is suffering an allergic reaction that results in mange or sweet itch.
- Bumps or hives at the bite mark (Usually occurs immediately)
- Signs of an itch indicate an allergic reaction (Delayed response)
- Raw, rubbed spots on the cheeks, neck, throat, and ears.
- Chest reactions indicate an allergic reaction
The horse usually contracts these when they are being pestered by midges, mosquitoes, pepper ticks, and other insects. The spit from the midges tends to irritate the horse’s skin, causing the horse to scratch and rub to relieve the itchiness. As a result, the hair falls out in the affected areas, and if this rubbing is allowed to continue, the horse’s skin will eventually suffer serious damage and the hair may not grow back.
Treatment For Baldness Caused by Sweet Itch
The first step in treating mange or sweet itch is to ensure that there is no continued exposure to the biting insects.
This means you need to move your horse to a pasture that is not midge friendly. Spray them daily with a powerful insect repellent. And, wash them in an equine-approved dip. This will further protect them from insects like pepper ticks that burrow into the skin.
You can also use a mosquito trap to attract and trap mites via carbon dioxide, preventing them from biting your horse. Midges are attracted to carbon dioxide because it’s usually a sign of living animals.
Next, scrub the skin with an antibacterial shampoo, rinse well, and repeat this for at least three days.
This is followed by daily applications of a healing lotion that contains skin-nourishing ingredients like vitamin E oil, coconut oil, and zinc.
For horses with pink skin, apply sunscreen to protect them from sunburn. Zinc ointment will also work well to protect your horse’s skin against sunburn.
- Use effective repellents to ward of insects
- Approved Equine Washes help the skin to heal and protect from additional bites
- An Antibacterial shampoo helps heal secondary bacterial issues
- Apply Lotion daily
3. Mud Fever Causes Hair Loss on Legs
While mud fever can happen at any time of the year, it is predominantly a condition that happens when a horse is exposed to a lot of wet and muddy ground.
Mud fever is usually seen on the back of a horse’s legs. It starts at the back of the pastern, into the fetlock, and spreads up the lower leg. In severe cases, a horse can even have mud fever forming up the horse’s hamstrings and even progress to cover a horse’s belly and back.
Signs of Mud Fever
Most horse owners know the dreaded sandpaper feel of mud fever scabs on their horse’s legs. It’s a painful condition that can lead to skin inflammation, swelling, and secondary infections if not treated. The hair will begin to rot away on the skin, coming off in clumps when the area is washed. Horses can also become lame due to the painful sensation when they bend their swollen legs if they have severe mud fever.
Treatment for Mud Fever
Treating mud fever is a time-consuming process, and the sooner you start, the quicker your horse’s recovery. Prevention is better than cure, and if your horse is in a mud-rich environment, you need to wash the mud off on a daily basis. Applying a water-repelling ointment or oily cream such as vaseline will help prevent your horse from getting mud fever.
If your horse already has mud fever, wash their legs with an antibacterial shampoo every day. Allow the shampoo to foam, lather the legs, wait 10-15 minutes for the foam to soften the scabs, then wash while gently scrubbing off the scabs.
This is painful for your horse, but don’t be skittish. There may even be a slight bleeding while the scabs come off. The scabs must be removed so the ointments can work on the affected areas and to prevent pus-filled sores forming.
Dry the legs with a soft towel, then apply a good quality antibacterial ointment that nourishes the raw skin too. I also mix my own ointment that works really well.
To make a homemade ointment for Mud Fever mix:
- 9 ounces of good quality milking cream
- 3 tablespoons of vaseline
- 1-ounce zinc ointment
- 1-ounce vitamin E oil
- Half an ounce of castor oil
- Half an ounce of coconut oil
- 1 small tube of equine eye ointment (the antibiotic kind)
Apply this daily after you have washed and dried your horse’s legs. If you can remove your horse from the muddy paddock, your horse will recover much quicker. In cases of severe swelling and inflammation, you may need to consult your vet to give your horse cortisone and antibiotic injections.
As with other skin conditions, be patient and persistent in your treatment to ensure your horse regrows their coat without suffering permanent damage.
4. Ringworm and Hind Baldness
Worming your horse has become a bit of a debate in the horse world. That’s because there are concerns about deworming your horse too frequently. That’s because a horse actually needs to be dewormed according to the lunar cycles and according to their fecal matter egg count.
Yet, a horse that suffers from a worm load needs to be treated. Ringworm is one of the worst dermatophyte infestations to treat.
Ringworm is usually presented in a horse that rubs the dock of their tail and their hindquarters on stable walls, paddock rails, and even gates. It passes through shared equipment, transportation, or contact with other horses.
Signs of Ringworm
Ringworm infestation is a painful condition that causes the hair to fall out and the skin to appear dry and itchy. Your horse will rub compulsively to try and rid themself of the itchiness. If you rub or scratch their dock and bum area, they will take great pleasure in this.
Be careful when treating this condition as the ringworm eggs may be present at the site of infection. Scratching this area can leave eggs embedded under your nails, causing human infection too.
- Tufts of hair in a circular pattern stand up, these are followed by hair loss.
- Compulsive rubbing
- Ring-shaped lesion
- Dry, scaly skin
- Round or circular bald patches of skin (usually 6 days after infection)
- Patches will start to cluster as ringworms spread
Always wash your hands with a high-quality antibacterial soap, scrubbing your nails carefully, to be on the safe side. You can also opt to use surgical gloves when treating ringworm.
Treatment for Ringworm
Treatment for ringworm starts by administering a good quality oral dewormer to your horse. You may have to repeat this after four to six weeks to be sure you have effectively removed the ringworms. The worms are susceptible to dewormer at different larval and egg stages of their development.
I like to combine this deworming treatment with a probiotic supplement in my horse’s feed to help negate the effects of the dewormer. In severe cases, your horse may experience diarrhea after the oral dewormer has been given.
This is partly due to worm damage and due to the dewormer ingredients. If your horse is a pregnant mare or a foal, be sure to check whether the dewormer you choose is safe for them.
Treating the skin alone will not yield success, so be sure to treat the worms at the source (your horse’s gut). At the same time, you can start by applying an antibacterial treatment lotion to help your horse recover. In severe cases, I like to wash my horse’s tail and rump with warm water and antibacterial and antiparasitic soap. Rinse well, apply a solution of one cup water with a quarter cup of Listerine mouthwash or thymol-containing mouthwash to the area to help reduce the itchiness. Allow to dry, then apply the lotion.
Once the itchiness has stopped, and your horse is no longer rubbing, you can apply the same lotion used for mud fever (minus the antibiotic eye ointment) on a daily basis to nourish the skin and help healing.
5. Skin Irritation Can Cause Hair Loss
Ever noticed how some horses just seem itchy? Like humans, horses can also suffer from seasonal itch and this may often be accompanied by a nasal drip and frequent sneezing.
Irritable horses will rub their skins, despite there being no insect load or other factors to prompt the itchiness. Despite there being no visible sign of irritation causing factors, your horse rubs, and rubs, and rubs … and soon there’s no hair left. They may rub their necks on stable walls and doorways, compulsively rub their chest, and swing their tails to rub on doorways.
6. Allergy Caused Baldness
Allergic reactions can cause baldness. In addition to the allergic reaction caused by biting bugs, horses can also have allergic sensitivities to parasites or fungi. Less commonly, a horse may have an allergy to a specific product being used on them or that they are exposed to when they are stabled.
Possible Causes of Irritation and Allergy
Short of running a full set of blood reports, you will probably not find out what is causing your horse to be itchy. This can be quite costly, and if the rubbing is mild, you may be better off spending that money on treatment rather than running expensive tests.
Common culprits for irritation and allergies are dust and pollen, bacterial infection, allergic reactions to other environmental elements like acid rain, and genetic conditions. Either way, you would need to treat your horse holistically.
Treatment for Horse Allergies
As with humans, itchiness can be a symptom of an underlying condition. Without knowing what that condition is, you will need to treat the itchiness symptomatically. Ensure your horse doesn’t have a parasitic load. Burrowed in ticks and other allergy-forming insects need to be treated before the itchiness and resulting alopecia can be treated.
Beef up your horse’s diet by including immunity-boosting supplements like biotin, B-vitamins, vitamin C, antioxidants, good quality minerals (throwing a salt lick in their stable can only help), and flaxseed oil. These will help nourish your horse’s immunity and their skin from the inside out.
Watch for patterns when the itchiness is worse. Some horses are sensitive to the change of season and administering a cortisone injection before the rubbing starts can help prevent rubbing and hair loss. Act quickly when you see your itchy horse start rubbing. An itchy horse can literally destroy the skin on their faces in one afternoon. If your horse is itchy, keep the right supplies on hand at all times.
I also give my itchy horses an occasional dose of Benadryl if I see they are becoming itchy (but the itchiness is not severe enough for cortisone yet). Note, this is not an equine-approved medication, and if you do the same, you are doing so with the possible risk that your horse could have an allergic reaction. I administered five Benadryl tablets with my horse’s feed, and they have experienced no adverse effects from this, but you should not feed this long term.
7. Human-Inflicted Rubbing and Hair Loss
The last reason for horse alopecia is human inflicted. Horses can lose hair due to excessive rubbing in the same spot. This is usually caused by ill-fitting tack.
Hair loss from rubbing is usually seen in the girth, withers, around the horse’s ears, and where other straps or fittings connect with their body.
Signs of Rubbing Related Hair Loss
Bald patches may form around the horse’s elbows from an ill-fitting girth. There may also be hair loss on the withers and down the spine from a poorly fitted saddle or lumpy saddle pad. Bridles can also do a lot of damage, rubbing over the nose, under the chin, and jaw, and causing calluses around the atlas (curve) of the ears.
Treatment for Hair Loss Caused by Rubbing
The number one treatment, in this case, is to ensure your tack fits properly. Just because you have a saddle, doesn’t mean it will fit your horse. Your bridle and saddle need to fit your horse. Each horse should have their own bridle and saddle, or at least their own bridle and saddle pad.
If you use your saddle for multiple horses, be sure that it fits all the horses it is used on. Don’t get lazy about this. Check the fitment every four to six months as horses change shape as they age and according to the work they do.
Once you have improved the saddle fit, you need to treat the rubbing. This means nourishing the skin to promote hair growth. Wash the skin to open the pores, apply a nourishing cream, and brush daily to encourage blood circulation.
8. Poor Nutrition Affects Hair Growth
Poor coat quality is usually the first indication of poor nutrition in your horse. First, you’ll notice the luster and shine will dull. Poor protein, or insufficient protein, can cause hair loss. But, more commonly, a shortage of certain amino acids, vitamins, and healthy fats in the diet contributes to coat issues.
This happens more frequently in older horses but can also happen when a horse doesn’t have a varied diet. Overall, hair loss caused by diet is not as common in today’s modern world because horses are fed much better than in times past.
But, nutritional deficiencies can include Methionine and other sulfur amino acids, Vitamins A, B6, and Biotin. Additionally, Copper, Zinc, Selenium, and Iron are necessary for a healthy coat. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are all critical in healthy hair. An extreme deficiency in any of these can cause baldness or the thinning of hair. If compounded with another issue, hair loss can be worsened.
If your horse shows signs of poor nutrition, check your horse’s teeth (check out Why does my horse need to see a dentist for more information) to make sure that it can properly chew and consume its feed. Check your horse’s forage to make sure it’s high in nutrition (Best types of hay for horses). A high parasite load and ulcers can also affect your horse’s eating and ability to absorb nutrients.
9. Fungal Infections
Various fungal infections can cause hair loss, but the most common is ringworm, covered above. A vet can check for fungal infections and identify if your horse has one.
10. Autoimmune and Other Rare Diseases That Cause Hair Loss
Alopecia Areata is a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease that causes baldness in horses. It is extremely rare in horses. Alopecia is usually referred to as the symptom of hair loss and is used in conjunction with other causes. Alopecia Areata has been diagnosed in other animals such as dogs, cats, mice, and rats, but not thought to apply to horses.
Alopecia Areata occurs when the horse’s immune system creates antibodies that attack the hair follicles at the base of the hair. This eventually leads to the hair breaking at the base and falling off. There is currently no known cure for Alopecia Areata. Horses diagnosed with it should be protected from sunburns.
Recent studies at the University of Cambridge Veterinary Hospital have identified color-diluted follicular dysplasia. It’s a condition where the color pigment clumps at the base of the hair, instead of spreading evenly throughout the follicle. This causes the hair to slow down its growth and eventually, the hair falls out. There is no known cure, but it is not life-threatening. It is usually associated with gray-haired horses.
How to Ensure Healthy Hair Growth and Avoid Alopecia
We all ooh and ahh about lovely horses with lustrous coats, but the reality is that this takes work. Invest in your horse’s health by maintaining their skin with a daily grooming routine and healthy feeding.
Inspect your horse daily to ensure you pick up on any first signs of hair loss, thereby ensuring you can treat the condition and cause immediately.
Daily Grooming Routine to Reduce Unhealthy Hair Loss
Brush your horses daily to remove loose dirt, mud, and any parasites that may threaten their skin and hair integrity. This will also help you know your horse and you will more easily spot when there is something going on with their skin.
Grooming helps your horse shed old hair and it encourages blood circulation that helps with growing healthy new hair. Grooming also helps with the recovery of skin conditions.
Avoid sharing brushes as this can spread parasites like ringworms and their eggs from one horse to the next. Clean and disinfect your brushes at least once a week.
Use appropriate insect repellents during the summer to keep your horses protected and prevent itchiness and irritation that can lead to hair loss. Treat signs of alopecia immediately, acting appropriately to where the hair loss is evident and according to what you believe may be causing it.
Luckily, his new owners have gone the extra mile. Through correct feeding, application of skin-boosting lotions, regular tick management to prevent damage from happening again, his skin has improved dramatically.
Feed According to Your Horse’s Needs
Your horse’s largest organ is their skin. You need to feed in such a way that you ensure your horse is healthy.
Ensure you feed your horse a balanced diet that is rich in roughage and low in sugars. Sweet feeds may be a treat to your horse, but it should never be their main form of nutrition.
Feeding high-quality hay that is rich in vitamins, minerals, and especially elements like calcium will ensure your horse has a healthy diet. That will in turn promote skin and hair growth.
If required, you can feed a supplement to address early issues with your horse’s skin. An allergy-alleviating supplement or a skin-boosting supplement will help prevent alopecia while also nourishing the skin.
Your horse is a beautiful animal. Most horse owners don’t want a spotty horse that has bald patches where alopecia has set in. Taking preventative care will keep them shiny and healthy. Make sure your horse is protected from damaging influences such as insects, allergy-causing conditions, and rubbing.
Keep your horse in the best shape and condition you can. Take care of them daily. Make sure you check for injuries and alopecia causing signs and your horse will be happy and itchy-free