Sunburn

We are so fortunate to live in a country that enjoys year-round sunshine, unlike other regions of the world where weeks at a time can pass without a glimpse of the sun. However, we do need to be aware of the risk that the sun poses to our beloved horses. Regardless of whether or not it’s overcast, the sun’s rays can still penetrate the skin, but the summer season is certainly when the heat is the most vicious.

Like with people, fairer skin and coat types among horses are more prone to skin damage than others. The pigmentation in hair and skin protects against the sun’s ultraviolet rays, so any horses with pale-skinned areas will suffer more. We take a look at some of the precautions we as horse owners can take to prevent sunburn in our horses.

Who’s at risk?

Simply speaking, sunburn will occur when a sensitive area of the horse’s skin is exposed to direct sunlight, and this period can vary from a few minutes to a few hours depending on the horse’s skin pigmentation. The face and heels are the most commonly affected areas, especially the muzzle, because these areas are the least protected by hair. 

Horses of all breeds can be affected, but especially breeds that have pale or white faces, or horses with bold white markings such as Paints and Appaloosas. Horses with dark pigmentation but thin skin are also at risk.

Sunburn occurs easily if the horse lives out permanently or is turned out for the majority of the day. Horses who don’t wear protective gear or can’t escape from the sun under a shelter or tree will easily fall victim to the sun’s harmful rays.

Doing the damage

As with people, sunburn can cause discomfort, redness and later peeling. Repeated sun damage or sunburn can result in more serious long-term damage, such as thickening and scaling of the skin (called keratosis), which can later turn into skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma).

Besides the obvious skin damage, ultraviolet-light exposure also affects the immune system. Horses with white legs or long leg markings are more prone to bacterial infections and mud fever, and even more so if their skin is thin.

Prevention

Ensuring that paddocks have shaded areas is of utmost importance, and this can be provided in the form of a large tree or a shelter. If horses are turned out in large numbers, make sure there are multiple shaded areas. 

A fly mask with an extended muzzle piece will help protect horses with white faces or large white markings. If the horse has thin or sensitive skin, make sure he is turned out with a full fly sheet on.

There are several retailers in South Africa that sell equine sunscreen lotions that you can rub onto your horse’s skin, but many owners also use human (especially children’s brands) sunscreens, because they often have higher protective factors and water resistance.

Treating sunburn

When prevention has come too late and the horse is found sunburnt, immediately bring him into the stable. If the sunburn has damaged the skin to the point where blistering and oozing are evident, phone your vet to come treat the horse with the necessary medication. In these cases, treatment usually includes removing the crusted skin, administering antibiotics and applying soothing creams. In less severe cases, the burnt area should be treated with a moisturising cream, ideally containing something like aloe vera, and preventative measures must be put in place to ensure the horse is not burnt again next time he is turned out.