One of the key indicators of a horse’s health is its coat. While a horse’s coat does not tell the entire story about its physical condition, veterinarians often look at the coat as one of the most definitive signs of general health. Importantly, a lack of shine on a horse’s coat does not necessarily mean that it is not healthy. When a horse spends time in the sun, the light can bleach its hair and reduce the shine. In addition, horses do not tend to have a shiny coat unless they are regularly groomed. For this reason, it is important to look beyond shine as a sure sign of health. Below are some of the common issues relating to a horse’s coat that owners may notice and what they can indicate about an equine’s health.
Dandruff: Many people worry when they see signs of dandruff on their horses, but flaky skin alone does not mean that a horse is in poor health. Most horses that are not groomed thoroughly and frequently will show some signs of dandruff. On the other hand, horses that are bathed too frequently will also have dandruff. Overbathing strips the natural oils from the coat that are meant to keep the skin hydrated and healthy. Excessive bathing can also exacerbate disease, so owners who think that this is the reason for dandruff should adopt a less stringent bathing schedule. People who suddenly notice an increase in dander in their equine without a clear explanation may want to seek veterinary attention. An increase in dandruff can point to parasites or immune issues, as well as excessive stress.
Shedding: Cushing’s disease, also known as pituitary pars imtermedia dysfunction, has become a widely discussed topic in the equine community. An endocrine disease, Cushing’s can be initially identified by the failure of a horse to shed properly in the spring. You should keep in mind that all horses have their own schedule for growing and then losing their winter coat, so you should not be concerned if your horse does not shed at the same time as the others around it. However, you should make a mental note of your horse’s annual schedule, which should be consistent from one year to the next. If your horse normally starts shedding in March, but still has its full coat in April, a visit to a veterinarian is necessary. Horses with Cushing’s also tend to lose the longer “cat hairs” under their chin and belly last, so if that pattern is new, then you should speak with a veterinarian.
You should understand the normal shedding process, which is controlled by light rather than temperature. The body reacts to the length of daylight as a sign whether it should grow or lose its winter coat. Thus, a particularly warm winter should not have any effect on a horse’s shedding. Since shedding is a complex chain of biological reactions, it often does not happen in a linear fashion, and horses can begin to look very patchy for a period of time. Patchiness should not be a cause for concern unless you see a different pattern emerging in a given year than the horse previously exhibited. In general, the pattern for a given horse should be consistent from one year to the next.
Dryness: While a loss of shine is not a cause for concern by itself, when a horse’s hair also becomes dry and hay-like, then you should begin looking for other symptoms that could point to worms. When horses have a lot of worms in their system, they will not receive the nutrients that they need from the food they eat. The worms use the nutrients for themselves before the horse’s body has time to absorb them, which will also result in significantly reduced energy levels. If a horse loses its energy and its coat loses its sheen, then you should consult with a veterinarian about treatment for worms. In general, a horse’s coat is a helpful indicator of proper nutrition. If a horse is eating a well-balanced diet, but its coat still looks unhealthy, parasites are often to blame.
A Horse’s Coat and Nutrition
If you are unhappy with the appearance of your horse’s coat, you can change its diet to achieve a better appearance. Some of the vitamins and minerals most commonly missing from a horse’s diet include vitamins A and E, biotin, silicon, zinc, and copper. Typically, these nutrients are absorbed from green grass in the spring and summer, but they may be missing from stored and dried feed. While some believe that vegetable oil helps to produce a healthy, shiny coat, horses that consume a low-fat diet do not require any fatty acids. Always speak with a veterinarian before beginning any supplement regimen for your horse. In addition, it’s important to remember that supplements are not a replacement for proper grooming or feed.
One option that horse owners may want to consider is horse hair analysis. Modern techniques allow scientists to accurately profile a horse’s biochemistry through the analysis of a hair follicle. The process can identify both nutritional deficiencies and toxicities in a way that is not possible through blood analysis. The test can help to pinpoint deficiencies and avoid overloading the animal with vitamins and minerals that it already receives through its diet.