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Sunburn on light skinned horses

During hot days, horses are prone to developing sunburn, particularly on the delicate skin of their faces. Horses with extensive white markings and lightly pigmented skin are especially susceptible to this problem. This includes horses not only horses with bald faces but also those with blazes that extend between the nostrils, leaving sensitive pink skin exposed without protective hair covering it. Additionally, horses with color patterns such as Appaloosas, Knabstruppers, piebalds and skewbalds, perlinos, cremellos, and others are particularly at risk. Fair skin, especially at areas with sparse or no fur, is equally sensitive to sunlight as ours. For fair-skinned humans and horses alike, even brief exposure to the sun or slightly overcast conditions can result in sunburn.

Plants that trigger sunburn

Certain plants contain substances that increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. St. John’s wort, a well-known example, is typically avoided by horses in the pasture. Red clover, which is commonly found in many paddocks and greatly enjoyed by horses, is another culprit.

© Marén Wischnewski / Adobe Stock

Particularly hazardous is the American hogweed, whose giant perennials are found especially often in damp areas near streams or ponds. Even contact with this plant’s enormous shrubs can significantly disrupt skin pigmentation and render the skin highly photosensitive, leading to burns from even mild sunlight exposure. Studies have also shown that feeding wheat to horses increases their photosensitivity. Cutting out wheat products quickly eliminates this hypersensitivity to sunlight. Alfalfa is also suspected of inducing photosensitivity in horses. As many commercial feeds contain wheat or wheat by-products (wheat flour, wheat semolina bran, wheat flakes, etc.) or alfalfa, it is crucial to read the feed labels carefully and adjust the diet accordingly.

Higher risk of sunburn in the morning than in the afternoon

If you turn your horses out in the morning to take advantage of the cooler hours, ensure that susceptible individuals return to the shade before the sun becomes too intense and scorching. The risk decreases in the afternoon, making it possible to let these horses enjoy the cool evening hours while the sun is still up. Since the hottest part of the day usually falls between 2 and 3 p.m., many horses are content to go out around 5 p.m. when temperatures start to drop. During this time, the risk of sunburn typically decreases.

Face masks provide effective protection, covering all sensitive areas, including the nostrils if necessary. They provide shade to the vulnerable skin around the nose and eyes, offering better protection. Sunscreen can also be used, but due to horses’ more sensitive skin, it is advisable to opt for baby sun cream with a high sun protection factor if possible.

Treating sunburnt horses

Once sunburn has happened, the same principles apply as they do for us. Move the horse out of the sun and into the shade to cool down. The method of cooling can vary depending on what resources are available in the stable and what the horse is comfortable with. Options include using a damp cloth on the nostrils (which the horse may chew on), gently running water over the affected area with a hose, or wrapping a frozen cool pack in a kitchen towel (remember to always place at least one layer of cloth between the skin and the cool pack to avoid frostbite). Another pleasant cooling option is an old household remedy: buttermilk. Apply it to the affected areas. Buttermilk not only cools the skin but also helps restore the skin’s pH balance, aiding in faster regeneration.

© Mark / Adobe Stock

Burnt skin in horses often becomes crusty, causing discomfort and itchiness. A regular fatty ointment (avoiding those containing Vaseline or paraffin, which can dry out the skin) is great for such cases. It doesn’t have to be an expensive after-sun lotion for sensitive skin; regular creams like Penaten are just fine. Slightly warming up the cream to improve fluidity makes it easier to apply. This ointment helps reduce inflammation and supports wound healing. It is not only suitable for sensitive baby bottoms but also for horse noses, despite the potential for some amusing reactions from your horse!

Prevention is always better

Avoid turning horses out in the pasture during the morning hours. Instead, opt for early morning or evening/night turnouts when the sun’s intensity is lower. When going out into the pasture in bright sunlight, put on a face mask that covers all vulnerable areas. In case a small portion is left exposed (or if the other horses would rather use the mask as a toy), apply a layer of baby sun cream to safeguard the skin. If sunburn does happen, take immediate action to cool the affected area. If possible, apply a soothing coating of buttermilk overnight. Once crusts form, gently brush on a nourishing cream. By following these steps, even those with “pale faces” can endure the summer season with ease.