Managing Horse Allergies & Injuries

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How to Manage Horse Allergies & Injuries

Like people, horses are affected by the conditions in which they live, and, over the course of their lifespan, may experience sprains, strains and soreness of the back and legs. Illness or pain affects not only the way horses move, but also what they feel and behave. Some allergies, illnesses or injuries can first appear as changes in mood. 


There are many ways of maintaining a healthy hair coat on a horse. A balanced diet, grooming, age, health conditions and other factors can impact a horse’s coat condition. Products that may come into contact with a horse’s hair coat, such as fly sprays and even horse blankets or sheets, can cause an adverse or allergic reaction. Some basic tips for maintaining a healthy hair coat for horses:

  • Balanced diet – omega 3/6
  • Use appropriate products. For example, use shampoos, conditioners, grooming sprays or fly spray products developed specifically for horses.
  • Regularly groom horses to remove dust, dirt, burdocks, or other build-up. Grooming is also an opportunity to inspect the horse for any signs of injury by examining the entire body. Use grooming brushes with a bristle stiffness that the horse prefers, in order to prevent discomfort. For example, some horses prefer soft bristled brushes instead of stiff bristles.
  • Blankets or sheets should be removed daily to check the horse’s condition and hair coat. Blankets or sheets should also be appropriate for the weather conditions.
LINK: Veterinarians should be consulted and involved in helping horse owners and caregivers meet their animal health obligations. Veterinarians can help establish vaccination and parasite control programs. They should also be consulted when a horse shows signs of illness or abnormal behaviours. Find out more about Alberta veterinarians on the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association website.


An abscess is a collection of pus encapsulated in the tissues underneath the skin.

An abscess may first appear as a swelling under the skin and can either be hot, painful and firm, or cold to the touch. In later stages, the localized swelling often becomes softer and less painful and may form a point. Some horses with abscesses exhibit an elevated temperature, disinterest in food and lethargy. If the horse has a hoof abscess, they may exhibit sudden lameness.

The cause of most skin abscesses is usually a closed-over puncture wound in which foreign matter, such as dirt or a splinter, has penetrated the skin. Abscesses under the jaw can be caused by an internal infection or disease such as strangles. Internal abscesses are usually associated with generalized bacterial infections and can occur on the liver, lungs and other areas.

Hoof abscesses occur when bacteria enter the interior hoof structures, usually through the sole wall. If the sole is weakened, the horse bruises their sole, or has a penetrating injury to the sole, this increases susceptibility of a hoof abscess. The abscessed area of the skin should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and water. The application of hot compresses will help to draw abscess contents, including pus and foreign matter, to the surface, which is commonly referred to as “coming to a head.”

If the skin abscess forms a point, it may burst on its own while being hot-compressed, or it could be carefully lanced to allow the contents to drain. Pressing gently on the areas surrounding the abscess may aid in the drainage. If a large pocket exists after the draining, it can be packed or flushed daily. It is important to keep the surface hole open to allow continued drainage and to promote closure from the inside out. The surface hole should close up eventually. Always inspect the wound during each cleaning for any foreign bodies. If embedded, they must be physically removed to ensure healing.

Hoof abscesses should also be cleaned with soap and water. Soaking the hoof in warm water and an antiseptic solution helps soften the hoof capsule and encourages drainage. The foot should be wrapped and protected from further bacteria, dirt or other debris from entering. A veterinarian may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medication or antibiotics, if needed.

Poultices can also be used to treat an inflamed area and draw out the infection. A poultice is a soft, moist material that is applied to the hoof under a bandage containing medications. Cold poultices help to reduce inflammation while hot poultices help increase blood supply to an injury and draw out infection. A hot poultice should be comfortable to the touch.

LINK: Find out more about poultices from the article "The Best Way to Treat Abscesses" by Horse Canada.

It is recommended that you seek veterinary consultation if you suspect that your horse has a skin or hoof abscess.


Skin allergies, and allergic tendencies in general, are becoming more and more common. This may be due, in part, to ingestion and inhalation of pesticides and seasonal changes that have resulted in increased pollen in the air. Horses can exhibit symptoms similar to those of dogs, cats and even people, including runny eyes and nose, coughing, swelling or itching of various parts of the body, and hypersensitivity to insect bites. 

Dermatitis is essentially skin inflammation that can be caused by bacteria, fungi, external parasites or an allergic reaction. It may present as urticaria (or hives), pruritis (itching) or both. Dermatitis is generally used to indicate a scaly or dry coat, dry spots on the skin or lesions. Conditions such as these should be evaluated by a veterinarian. A veterinarian may prescribe medications or management changes to help treat the dermatitis.  


Whether on pasture, in the stable or while being ridden, horses can be prone to injury. Even with the most careful horse owner or caregiver, and in the safest environment, emergencies can occur or the provision of first aid may be required. Everyday cuts and scrapes need proper treatment as soon as possible to prevent them from getting worse.

Horse being checked by veterinarian

All horses should be checked thoroughly for signs of injury as part of the daily care routine. This routine ensures that injuries are identified as soon as possible after they occur, and veterinary attention is provided, if needed. Basic first aid should be administered to take immediate action and prevent the injury from getting worse until the veterinarian can examine the horse.

  • Assess the situation. Is it safe for you to approach and handle the horse? If not, do not approach the horse or put yourself at risk. Wearing a helmet is a good safety measure, as a horse in pain can be unpredictable and exhibit defensive behaviour. 
  • Contact a veterinarian and provide them with details of the injury. Follow any instructions they provide.
  • If it is safe to approach and handle the horse, move the horse to a safe environment where the veterinarian can safely examine them when they arrive. 


Many cases of lameness originate in a horse’s foot. If not detected and treated at the outset, minor foot ailments can worsen rapidly, resulting in serious infection or lameness. Daily cleaning and inspection of legs assists in the early detection and prevention of foot problems. Horses can also experience musculoskeletal lameness.

Ideally, a horse should be inspected on a firm, level surface. The horse should walk comfortably and, when standing, the weight should be distributed evenly on all four feet. Hooves should be cleaned out using a hoof pick and hoof brush, with care being taken to remove mud and debris from around the frog and the heels.

LINK: Check out this video on how to clean a horse's hooves. 

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about lameness?

“Lameness is a significant welfare concern. For the purpose of this Code, it is defined as any alteration in the horse’s gait that appears to be caused by pain or discomfort. Lameness can manifest as a change in performance or willingness to move, head nodding or hip hiking. Gait can be evaluated from a walk, moving in a straight line and turning in both directions; a trot may be necessary if the lameness is less severe. 

Identifying the source of the lameness is essential to proper treatment. Prompt examination and diagnosis improves the welfare of the horse and can save time and money and prevent further damage.

There are various forms of treatment for lameness, including rest, medication, surgical procedures, corrective trimming and shoeing, rehabilitation exercises and pain management. Pin firing is not recommended for treating lameness – the procedure itself causes pain and there is very little scientific evidence that shows that pin firing is beneficial.“

The following requirement is identified in the Code of Practice:

Lameness must be addressed either through specific therapies or changes in management or workload.

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Reduce the risk of lameness by: 
  • Considering the horse’s physical condition and soundness when determining the type and amount of work the horse will be asked to do.
  • Ensuring immature horses are not worked or trained excessively.
  • Providing horses with adequate rest periods between work sessions.
  • Ensuring good footing in exercise and turnout areas.
  • Ensuring regular hoof care.
  • Allowing low-grade injuries to heal by giving horses appropriate lay-ups (longer rest periods).

     2. Obtain a veterinary diagnosis of the cause of lameness and veterinary advice on appropriate treatment.

Excerpts from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (©2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

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