I can 100% relate when it comes to worrying about your horse’s health especially when something totally unexpected starts happening like patches of your horse’s hair coming out. You suddenly start asking all your friends and googling “Why does my horse have bald spots??” in 10 different ways.
When this kind of thing happens to me, I start worrying about a million things at once:
- Is it something dangerous? Is my horse going to be okay?
- Is it painful or irritating?
- Is it contagious?
- Is it my fault? Did I do something wrong?
- Is it permanent?
- The vet’s going to cost me a fortune
Thankfully for your horse and your nerves, it is most likely is nothing! But just to be sure let’s go through some probable causes that you can check for and fix yourself.
If it turns out that it’s not one of the usual causes, then there’s still no reason to panic. I’ll list the differential diagnoses (all the possibilities) just so that you’re aware and the rest you’ll have to put in the hands of your local vet.
Alopecia has Different Causes, Including Shedding!
The condition where your horse is missing patches of hair – aka having bald spots – goes by the fancy name “Alopecia.”
This condition can be caused by a wide variety of things and as I mentioned above, the most likely causes have super easy fixes.
Cause 1: Shedding
A very likely cause is simply shedding! If you notice that the bald spots are seasonal then it’s probably just your horse shedding.
If your horse is shedding his coat unevenly, then you can try different things to try and fix it:
- Coat supplements (think omega-3 fatty acids).
- Routine grooming, but not over-grooming (here’s a refresher on how to groom your horse).
- Changing your horse’s shampoo or conditioner (here’s a refresher on how to bathe your horse).
Note: Sometimes seasonal bald spots – especially located in certain regions of your horse’s body – can also be related to a melatonin issue if the pineal gland is overly active. It has been suggested that this may be due to fluorescent and other artificial lighting in the winter months.
Cause 2: Rubbing
Another very common cause is a rubbing sore from the equipment you’re using.
My dad always wears those standard socks that cover his ankles and the lower part of his shin/calf. He’s been wearing them that way as long as I can remember (even with sandals and shorts…). And he now has significantly less hair where his socks sit, especially at the back of his leg.
The material has actually worn off the hair!
The same thing can happen to your horse. A consistently worn blanket might rub them in certain spots. Their saddle pad may not protect them properly from the saddle. Or even frequent wearing of a halter could be to blame.
Anything that consistently rubs the same spot has the potential to rub away their coat.
You can easily fix this by getting a different saddle pad, blanket or halter specifically designed to prevent rubbing. Or in terms of things like a halter, you can simply not use one when your horse is stalled unless there is a specific reason to use it.
Cause 3: Bitting, Kicking & Injuries
The final most common cause of Alopecia is injuries. If your horse has been injured then – just like us – they’ll scar. The scarred area may not regrow hair.
My sister hit my brother over the head with a shovel one day when we were young, because he was annoying her. Since then, my brother has had a crescent shaped scar on his head, and no hair grows there. I should note – my sister has calmed down slightly in her adulthood, but not by much!
So if your horse may have been kicked, bitten, or sustained some other injury when they were turned out, then these spots may no longer be able to grow hair.
If your horse’s bald spots are caused by injuries, then you should be aware of these as they occur so that you can make sure they are being avoided in the future and properly treated.
It’s difficult to prevent some minor kicking and biting, especially when introducing a new horse into your home. This is a natural process to develop hierarchy among the herd. But do watch for excessive aggression, and try to curb it.
Some horses that are overly aggressive need to be worked with and could benefit from separation from the rest of the horses until you can work through their issues.
Furthermore, another thing you can do is make sure that there are no areas of your fencing that are sharp or sticking out. Your horse may have tried to scratch or got close to a sharp piece by accident and cut themselves instead.
Check Your Horse’s Diet
Something that’s not quite as likely but possible is that there is something in your horse’s diet that causing them to lose hair. Try changing your horse’s feed for a while and see if there is any difference.
Chances are, however, it’s what he’s eating out in the fields rather than in the barn…
Cause 4: Selenium Toxicity
Selenium is a chemical that is present in a variety of plants.
All herbivores – and therefore your horse too! – eat it pretty frequently. In fact, it’s actually essential for good immune and fertility function, among other things.
Problems can arise, however, if your horse starts eating too much. If there are plants accessible to him that are very high in selenium content, he may develop poisoning.
One of the symptoms is hair loss especially of the mane and tail. Others include fear and nervousness at first and then weakness, diarrhea, fever, loss of appetite and respiratory distress.
A very indicative sign of selenium poisoning is hoof cracking and deformities.
If you notice severe horizontal cracks in your horse’s hooves, like the above, call your vet immediately. Acute selenium toxicity is extremely dangerous!
Below are some plants that require a high selenium content in the soil to grow (from igrow.org). You can do a sweep of your pastures to see if there’s big sections of any of them around.
Also do a quick Google search of your area and see if selenium poisoning is common in your area.
Along the stretch of the Rocky Mountains and slightly east of them are the most commonly affected areas in North America.
Is Your Horse Itching Excessively?
If you’ve ruled out everything above, then try observing your horse closely for the next few days. Are they bitting at and itching against anything they can find at the spots that are loosing hair often?
This behaviour may give you insight into what’s causing the issue.
You might have already guessed that there’s actually a fancy name for this excessive itching as well and it is “pruritus.” It’s essentially caused by a variety of different bugs that your horse doesn’t like. These are covered in causes 5 to 7 below.
Cause 5: Gnats
Think of dog fleas. On horses, instead of fleas, you get gnats. It’s also important to note that some horses may be more sensitive to the bites than others.
All you can really do is try and keep your horse away from insects as much as possible. Maybe turn them out at a different time or get some insect repellent for them.
I’ve even seen some gnat-specific spray that you can get. A quick Google search should turn up a few options.
Here’s a Youtube video promoting a homemade remedy.
I don’t have any experience with this homemade product so I’m not recommending or advising against. I just think this is a nice video to show you what the effects look like:
Cause 6: Mange
This is extremely unlikely for your horse to have if you live in North America. It’s basically an infestation of tiny insects called mites that burrow deep into your horse’s skin and are thus very hard to detect.
All you can do is call your vet for treatment options. But I would recommend giving your horse a big treat, because they’re probably in a lot of discomfort!
Cause 7: Lice
Yes unfortunately your horse can get lice as well! So think back to when you were in grade school and you had to shampoo your head a million times with gross-smelling chemicals to get rid of them.
Lice especially like to live in horses with thicker, long hair such as draft horses. You can spread apart your horse’s hair to look for lice. You should see them moving around if you’re attentive. The image above was obtained from pet-informed-veterinary-advice-online.com.
Don’t worry! These lice are equine specific so they can’t infect you.
In order to treat this, you’ll need to get into the same disciplined regiment you did as a kid. Bathing, disinfecting and making sure that nothing contaminated comes into contact with your horse again for several weeks. This includes tack and other equipment.
Others: Rain Rot, Scald, Ring Worm and Lesions
The more serious conditions are also the ones that are the most unlikely, especially if you take care of your horse well. Since you’re here reading this, it’s pretty clear that you’re dedicated to making sure your horse is as happy and healthy as possible.
I’ve listed them below with a brief description, an image of what the disease looks like and some further reading. If you at all suspect it’s one of these, it’s time to call the vet pronto.
Cause 8: Rain Rot or Scald
Rain rot is caused by consistent exposure to excess moisture. So if a horse is left outside in rainy and wet conditions for too long without any stall time, grooming or a blanket.
The horse is infected with an organism (behaves like a mix of bacteria and fungus) called dermatophilus congolensis. One of the symptoms of this is loss of hair in patches.
Above is an example photo (from caribuhorsewear.com.au).
Usually keeping your horse clean and dry can solve the issue but if it’s a severe infection, then antibiotics may be needed.
What to do:
- Call your vet.
- Keep your horse dry:
- Scrape off water after bathing.
- Provide shelter if it rains or stall them more.
- Invest in a light, breathable but waterproof blanket (check out my review on WeatherBeeta’s blankets).
- Keep your horse clean:
- Shampoo with an antimicrobial shampoo.
- If you want to avoid chemicals, you can use silver-based products.
- Isolate your horse from other horses.
- Don’t ride your horse, especially if there’s lesions on their back.
- Apply bug spray.
Cause 9: Ring Worm
If your horse has a case of ring worm, you’ll see hair loss in patches and scaly, dry skin in it’s place in a ring-like formation. The image below is an example.
This infection is transferred from other animals such as cattle or other horses or even humans (although that’s very rare).
This is essentially a fungal infection and if minor can be treated quickly and easily. If it’s more severe, then treatment may need to be more drastic especially if there’s an underlying condition.
What to do:
- Call your vet.
- Get rid of all hair near the area.
- Spot wash the affected area with anti fungal scrub.
- Apply anti-fungal cream.
- Apply anti fungal dressing.
- Dispose of all clipped hair.
- Disinfect all equipment that came into contact with the horse.
- Wash the towels separately and very well or simply throw them away.
- Wash yourself and all animals.
If you do the above, you should see an improvement within a few weeks.
Cause 10: Sarcoid
This is usually a benign lesion or tumour – essentially it’s known as skin cancer for horses but it’s generally not systemically harmful. Its exact cause is unknown although there is some speculation that it can be transferred from cattle who have bovine papillomavirus (BVP).
The image above is just one example but sarcoid can look many different ways as it evolves.
In very rare cases, the tumour is not benign (it is malignant) and can transfer to the lymphatic system and invade the horse’s system.
What to do:
- Call your vet.
- Give your horse a treat for being so brave!
Don’t Hesitate to Call the Vet, or at Least an Expert
I understand vets can be expensive and time consuming but I can’t stress how important it is to call one if you’re not sure what’s going on or you’re dealing with a condition that you can’t treat properly on your own.
If you really can’t afford a vet or you don’t want to jump the gun on diagnosing your horse with something life-threatening when it’s actually nothing, then at least call someone who you know that’s an expert. Someone who has had plenty of horse experience and has faced this problem themselves.
I really hope this has been helpful for you and as always, don’t hesitate to comment below and share your experiences with everyone! Have you and your horse ever had to deal with any of these conditions before?
Hope to hear from you soon and happy riding!
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