Helping the Sensitive Skinned Horse Nutritionally

By Sarah Welk Baynum

For horses with sensitive skin, Spring and Summer can bring a whole new level of irritation and skin-related conditions.
While horses can have skin-related issues year-round, Summer is when these issues flare up the most because sweat and bugs are two things that considerably agitate a horse’s already sensitive skin.
If you’re also putting wraps on the horse’s lower legs, for example, sometimes this sweat, dirt or sand can even work its way underneath, creating additional abrasions that can cause further issues.
But there are a number of things horse owners can do nutritionally that can make a big difference with these sensitive-skinned horses – especially in the summer.

Essential Proteins, Minerals, and Antioxidants For a Horse’s Skin

While you may be combating skin issues topically, it’s easy to forget that nutrition, especially certain proteins and minerals, are equally important when dealing with sensitive-skinned horses.

Protein, for example, isn’t just for building muscle. Every tissue in a horse body, including the skin, is made up of protein. This is why ensuring a horse has quality protein in its diet is so important.

When it comes to minerals, zinc and copper are very important for a horse’s skin. Biotin, which is a vitamin B, is commonly talked about for healthy hooves, but it’s also vital for a horse’s skin health as well. Fortunately, healthy horses being fed good quality forage should produce enough biotin to meet their needs in the hindgut.

Antioxidants are another important nutrient for healthy skin in horses. Selenium and vitamin E are often talked about for muscle as well but are very important for maintaining a healthy skin barrier.

For sensitive skinned horses, maintaining a healthy skin-barrier is imperative. This prevents microorganisms and pathogens from entering the deeper layers of the tissue, which is where things like chronic cellulitis can occur.

When a horse’s skin barrier is healthy, which is based on good nutrition and the essential nutrients mentioned above, it can help prevent some of these issues.
If a horse becomes deficient in one or more of these essential nutrients, that is when you often see things like chronic skin fungus, poor topline, poor hoof condition, and overall poor skin condition.

Fatty Acids, Omega 3’s, and Oils

If a horse’s diet includes all of the basic nutrients mentioned above, especially for those horses who have exceptionally sensitive skin, one of the next steps might be to add additional fats to their diet.

Many years ago, before we understood equine nutrition like we do today, horse people would use corn oil to add shine to a horse’s coat because they knew adding a little extra fat helped with this.

Horses produce an oily substance on their skin called sebum. When a horse lacks fat in their diet, they won’t produce enough sebum which leads to a drier, lackluster skin and coat. Because we feed horses a much higher in fat diet, versus the more sugary and starchy horse feeds we fed in the past, it’s less of an issue than it was 10 – 15 years ago.

Oftentimes, these sensitive horses might be getting plenty of fat in their diet already.

However, if omega 3’s are added to the diet as well, this can help calm down some of the allergic inflammation they may experience from things like bug bite hypersensitivity because they are an anti-inflammatory.

If a horse already has high level of fat in their feed, it might just be they need this right kind of Omega 3 fat to help their skin out, like the ones in Wholesome Blends Omega Plus. This blend of canola, hemp, which contains one omega 6 that falls into that anti-inflammatory category, and omega 3 fatty acids from flax oils. The Wholesome Blends is also very palatable, which is also important and can sometimes be an issue with other forms of omega oils.

How a Horse’s Immune System Effects Their Skin

Usually, poor skin and immune system health are not two things that are instantly thought of together.

However, if a horse’s immune system is compromised, this has a direct effect on how their skin and coat look and feel.

When considering the impact of nutrition on the immune system, there are two big things to consider: energy and protein.

Oftentimes, you will see a horse that’s very skinny and also has skin issues. A horse’s body can’t divert energy towards other processes, so when it's using all its energy for these basic staying-alive functions, the immune system becomes compromised in horses who aren't receiving enough energy.

It’s important to consider ideal body condition scores to understand how the horse can divert energy towards other processes like supporting the immune system, and ensuring they have quality protein, which is important for the immune system as well.

As mentioned above, vitamin E is vital for the immune system.

But Vitamin C is yet another nutrient that is produced by the horse. If the horse is on a healthy balanced diet, their liver should produce all the vitamin C that they need.

However, a horse who may not be super healthy may not be producing enough vitamin C, and vitamin C supports their immune system. Even though this is a nutrient not required by the NRC, vitamin C might need to be added to a horse’s diet to address some of these immune system support issues.

One interesting thing that’s also connected to excessive skin issues in horses is that it can be an early sign of Cushing's Disease. This can appear as chronic skin issues and slow healing wounds because in horses with Cushing's, their immune system is compromised. Even before they get a long, shaggy coat, muscle wasting, and other more obvious symptoms, you can see the impact of the Cushing’s disease process on the immune system turning up in their skin.

Insect Control

For horses with bug allergies, insect control is imperative.

As mentioned above, keeping the horse’s skin barrier strong and healthy is a vital part of combatting bug allergies.

But what horses are allergic to isn’t the bugs themselves, but instead, the saliva of the biting bugs – especially midges.

At the beginning of Spring and Summer, many horses will be covered in bumps from mosquito bites, but typically their skin will stop hyper-reacting to them after that. For horses who have bug allergies, however, they will continue to hyper-react.

This is another reason omega 3’s can be so beneficial for sensitive skinned horses, because help calm down some of the allergic inflammation.

In addition to topical fly control and fly sheets, feed through fly control is another great way to minimize bugs and bug allergies.

Diflubenzuron is a feed through ingredient that is approved for horses. It's not metabolized by the horse, and simply passes through their system and into their manure. This prevents the development of fly larvae that develop in manure. This can significantly decrease the number of stable flies in your barn.

Tribute Nutrition’s Essential K with Fly Control is a ration balancer that also includes this insect growth regulator and can be started early in the year to stop to overproduction of flies before it starts.

Article By: Sarah Welk Baynum
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