So… it’s that time of year again. We’re starting to see people living with the struggle of scratches! It’s #TipTuesday, so we figured we’d give you some of our tips to prevent scratches, and how to deal with them once they’ve landed.
First, some biology: what the heck are “scratches?” Scratches can be caused by any of a bacteria, virus, or fungus, though I’d say generally it’s most commonly considered to be a fungal infection. Scratches is also commonly referred to as mud fever. Fungal infections are notoriously communicable, so it’s important if there is one horse in the barn with scratches that everyone becomes diligent from that point to avoid the spread. This also, of course, means the horse show is going to be a breeding ground for the fungus, and it can get on your horse’s legs anywhere from stall to ring.
Listen, no one wants scratches. They’re such a pain. And if you think you won’t get them, then BOOM. Stove-pipe legs! Prevention, as usual, is the best medicine.
Keep those legs dry, folks! This is the biggest thing. Now, sometimes this can’t be avoided. We live on the beautiful west coast, which tends to deliver some wet weather from time to time, which means that we are going to have horses with wet legs. To help you keep the legs dry, keep your horse’s lower limbs clipped! This is especially important on the pink skin (i.e white markings), however in general we’d recommend you clip the whole lower leg. This also has the added benefit of keeping your horse looking neat and tidy! If your horse already has scratches, do not clip the legs! It will cause further irritation to the affected area. When you wash your horse, make sure you use a gentle cleanser – one with anti-fungal properties will be a bonus! Tea tree oil and distilled white vinegar are our favourite natural anti-fungals. Lots of shampoos and grooming sprays can be found with these ingredients. After washing, towel dry the legs, and have a bit of patience. Let them dry. If you want to cheat a little, use medicated foot powder to help draw out and absorb the moisture, and kill any remaining fungus on the surface. If your horse already has scratches, we would recommend using something like baby powder instead, as the medicated ingredients in the foot powder can cause further irritation.
Good equipment maintenance and barn hygiene says you should keep your equipment clean, but this is particularly important when dealing with scratches. If there is a horse in your barn that has scratches, make sure any sharing of communal brushes stops immediately! Keep your brushes, saddles pads, boots, and polos clean. This will give you a head start on scratches prevention.
So now, you’ve taken all the preventative steps and still your horse has been afflicted with scratches. I always joke that I have scratches because I feel like I’m constantly dealing with them! My last horse was an all white sensitive mare. She got scratches every year, without fail. My current horse, Carma, arrived in our barn with a bit of scratches and I dealt with it all summer!
When treating scratches, it will depend a bit on the source of the infection. As I mentioned above, this can be bacterial, fungal, or viral, so the treatment will differ in each case. I have taken the same approach year over year to treatment, and the answer is to be relentless and diligent. If you slip up, the infection will come right back. You’ll notice scratches first by the little scabs on the hind legs (usually). My first course of action is to clean them the best I can. I use a chlorhexidine scrub which can be purchased from most pharmacies (often labelled hibitaine scrub or stanhexidine). You can also use an iodine prep scrub, however I find this is a bit too drying on the horse’s skin, and sometimes can cause further problems. I scrub the area and do what I can to pull the scabs off. Remember: scratches are quite uncomfortable for your horse! Be very careful and wary of their legs as you scrub, as they may kick out in discomfort if you aggravate the scabs too much. Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned the area and worked off any scabs that will come off, dry the legs. This is still SO important. Make sure the legs are thoroughly dry. Many vets will have a scratches or mud fever cream that they can provide for you to put on the area, if not, an anti-fungal silver cream will work pretty well in most cases.
Same as the prevention section, make sure you keep your brushes and boots clean and dry, so that you’re always using clean equipment on the horse. This will prevent the spread of the fungus. Nothing worse than clearing your scratches and giving it back to your horse via dirty boots! Sometimes you can use a bit of peroxide or chlorhexidine in your water when you clean your brushes to make sure you kill any superficial fungus.
Now, in some cases, scratches will cause swelling in your horse’s legs and make them very, very sore. In this case, a course of antibiotics will be required from your vet. Keep an eye out for swelling while you are treating scratches, and if you start to notice the legs swelling, contact your vet to save your horse the discomfort.
Scratches can be a major pain in the butt for you, but can be extremely uncomfortable for your horse as well. Be mindful of how these can affect you, particularly if your horse has sensitive skin, lots of white markings, if you live in a wet or muggy climate, or if you show on big circuits with horses from all over. As always, prevention is the best medicine, but we hope these tips can help you if you have to deal with the dreaded scratches. Just remember, CLEAN AND DRY!
Until next time!