Prevent Sunburn in Horses

Here's how to protect your horse's sensitive skin from the risk of sunburn.

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The dog days of summer aren’t over yet and you and your horse might be feeling the brunt of the summer sunshine. Although the heat can put a cramp on your riding plans, if your horse spends daylight out in the pasture, the sun’s UV rays can be a constant source of skin damage depending on your horse’s pigment. Here’s how to prevent the summer sizzle on your horse’s skin.

Horses in Sun

 

Just like humans, horses can and do get sunburn, although this condition is most commonly seen in horses with light pigment in areas around the muzzle and eyes. Many pintos, Appaloosas, cremellos, and other light-skinned colors are at most risk, as are dark-colored horses with large blazes or a bald white face. Regardless of breed, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you see pink skin on your horse’s face, he is at increased risk for sunburn.

Recognizing Sunburn in Horses

Sunburns in horses are often worse than what we experience as humans and are characterized by bright pink, scaly, cracked skin. Sometimes blisters form and any freshly sunburned area is tender to the touch. A frequent complaint of horse owners is that their horse has suddenly become head shy when in fact a tender nose due to sunburn is making the horse reluctant to wear a halter or bridle.

A greater danger of sunburn beyond the immediate discomfort is that it increases the chances of squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant form of skin cancer.

Sun Protection Methods

Implementing methods to prevent sunburn in your horse should occur prior to your horse actually getting burned. Applying sunscreen to any areas of pink pigment on your horse’s face is an excellent preventative measure. Although there are horse-specific sunscreens available, using a child-safe, waterproof sunscreen works just as well. SPF 30 or above offers the best prevention.

Horse wearing a fly sheet and fly mask

 

Fly masks provide physical protection from the sun. If you decide to use one, make sure it fully covers the necessary areas of your horse’s face. Full facial masks with ear protection and extension over the muzzle are sometimes needed. If you have a horse with light skin all over his body, a fly sheet may be the most economical way to prevent sunburn along his topline.

Horse in a stall

Of course, limiting your horse’s time outside when the sun’s rays are at their worst is another way to prevent sunburn. Housing your horse inside from approximately 9 am to 3 pm will protect him from the most direct UV rays.

Treating Sunburn

If your horse has already been sunburned, a soothing, moisturizing, child-safe ointment helps ease the acute pain and dryness. Over-the-counter aloe ointments usually do not work, as they are too slippery and do not adhere to a horse’s face. The diaper rash ointment Desitin is a very popular and safe ointment to use on sunburned horses. Silver sulfadiazine cream is another good choice for badly burned areas, as this ointment contains an antibiotic, promotes skin healing, and was specifically developed for human burn victims.

Appaloosa head shot
Horses with pink skin are at the greatest risk of sunburn. Appaloosas, pintos, and other horses with a lot of white markings are often the most at risk.

One other aspect about sun damage to consider is photosensitivity. This is a different condition than sunburn in that photosensitivity causes skin damage in both pigmented and non-pigmented skin. Various toxic plants can cause photosensitivity, such as St. John’s wort, ragwort, and buckwheat, as well as a few types of antibiotics, such as tetracyclines. Liver damage can also result in photosensitivity. In cases of plant or drug ingestion, usually the omission of the offending article resolves the issue.

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