Feeding and Grooming for a Sleek Horse

Feeding and Grooming for a Sleek Horse

Understand vitamins, minerals, fats, environmental factors and grooming-product ingredients.

palomino horse runs in arena (Credit: courtesy of Debbie Courtney)

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Life presents a number of challenges to a horse’s skin and coat. Dampness from sweating and baths, the demands of training and competition, and harsh substances in some grooming products all contribute to skin problems such as flaking, itching, a dull coat and infections.

In this article, learn how to keep your show horses looking their best by providing proper nutrition, avoiding harsh chemicals and recognizing the signs and symptoms of over-grooming.

Balanced Nutrition: Beauty From the Inside Out

A balanced diet is vital to keeping your American Quarter Horse’s skin healthy. Skin and hair lacking necessary nutrients will not function properly. They are also more susceptible to damage and infections.


There are some specific vitamins and minerals that will ensure that your horse feels and looks his best.

  • Biotin helps metabolize the fats and proteins essential for skin and coat health. Inadequate biotin levels can result in dryness, flaking, fungal infections, a fine and brittle coat, or hair loss.

  • Niacin and pantothenic acid (vitamins B3 and B5) help release energy from food for a sound skin and coat.

  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B12) aids in healing skin trauma.

  • Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) facilitates hair growth and reduces skin inflammation.

  • Vitamin A (retinol) is an antioxidant that supports the immune system and is critical in promoting good skin and hair.

  • Vitamin E, another antioxidant, retards cellular aging, fights stress and supports the immune system, as well as contributing to thriving skin tissues.


Minerals also play an important role; imbalances and deficiencies are a common cause of coat-related complaints.

  • Selenium contributes to the efficiency of the immune system and also works with vitamin E. But, don’t over-supplement selenium, as it has a narrow safety margin.

  • A zinc deficiency can cause slow hair growth and shedding, delayed hair regrowth, flaking skin, poor wound healing, increased susceptibility to skin irritations and infections, and a dull coat color.

  • Copper is another key mineral for the production of dark coat pigments; inadequate copper is often why a horse’s coat and mane bleach out from sun exposure.

  • Protein and amino acids are also crucial for skin and coat health. Although a deficiency in protein is rare, some amino acids might be lacking in a horse’s diet. Sulfur amino acids originating from methionine are the most abundant in hair, but the coat also requires generous levels of lysine.


If your horse is getting a balanced diet and still has skin problems, consider adding fat. It’s what gives the skin and coat a soft texture and forms a protective waterproof seal between individual cells and around the shaft of the hair.

The most important fats are the ones the horse can’t make themselves: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Fresh grass contains high amounts of these fats, but they are lost when grass is dried and baled into hay. A variety of oils and other foodstuffs have these nutrients, but flax seed contains them in the balance that is most beneficial and with fewer calories.

Sources of Fat

“Flax is a very good source of fat,” says Dr. Rosanna Marsella, a professor of veterinary dermatology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida. “It is also an anti-inflammatory and anti-pruritic (itching). It really improves the quality of the skin and coat.”

Ground flaxseed provides the greatest benefit. Ground flax, common in many skin and coat supplements, must be handled with care and be “stabilized” to delay rancidity. Whole seeds may also be purchased, but you should prepare them before each feeding in a coffeebean grinder.

Stress and Horse Hair Coat

In addition to unbalanced nutrition, stress can have an effect on a horse’s skin and coat. Stress strains the immune system, which reduces the body’s ability to fight inflammation and infection, lowers the threshold for allergies, and may slow down the healing of trauma to the skin.

“We have seen that horses can actually break down with urticaria (hives) due to stress,” Dr. Marsella says. “There is a very direct link between the immune system and the rest of the body."

Reducing stress as much as possible is an obvious first step, but may not always be practical. You can also support the immune system by supplementing with antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C, beta carotene and manganese.

Bathing for Shiny Hair Coats

Bathing is a necessity for horses that show, but it can result in a dull coat and dry, flakey skin.

  • Shampooing too frequently can strip the natural oils, leaving the skin and hair without protection against excessive drying. If you choose your shampoo carefully, “You can bathe every day,” Dr. Marsella says. “Use something mild that has hypoallergenic ingredients, like oatmeal, and moisturizers – this is important.”

  • Choose products manufactured for horses. “If you use products designed for other species, you have to be careful,” Dr. Marsella says. “People think it’s OK to use baby shampoo, but in reality it’s the wrong pH, and it’s too degreasing for horses.”

  • Rinse thoroughly. Often, skin problems occur because shampoo wasn’t rinsed off thoroughly enough. Get those hard-to-reach places (like under the belly and behind the elbows) and areas where hair is thick, such as the mane and tail head. A low-sudsing shampoo is gentler to the skin and easier to rinse out.

  • Follow up your rinse with a moisturizing conditioner, which will replace the natural oils that may have been removed and nourish the skin and hair. But don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up with a greasy coat that attracts dust and dirt.

  • Bathe less frequently and groom regularly. Investing in regular grooming will not only remove scurf and dust, but will also stimulate the glands to bring out the natural oils in the skin. Many top show horses are groomed up to three times per day to achieve that deep bloom.

Choose Horse Grooming Products Wisely

To help our horses look their best, we use a wide variety of topical grooming aids, such as detanglers, stain removers, coat polishes, highlighters and fly repellents. If not used with care, they can negatively affect the skin.

Ingredients to Be Wary Of

  • Alcohol is a prevalent ingredient, particularly in fly sprays. It can damage the skin and hair, making it dry and vulnerable to sun damage,” Dr. Marsella says. The insecticide ingredients in chemical-based sprays may be too caustic for horses if they are applied too heavily, too often or on horses with sensitive skin.

  • Silicone is another culprit. It is common in hair polishes and conditioners, and it tends to dry the hair shaft and skin. It creates a coated layer above the hair that makes it appear shiny and feel soft. But, much like a varnish, it also prevents the coat from absorbing moisture. With excessive use, the hairs become weak and are easily damaged and broken. Fortunately, there are a number of silicone-free brands available that perform equally well without the negative effects.

  • Petroleum, wax and powder can also cause drying. If you use a product that contains these ingredients, apply a rehydrating spray to moisturize the skin and coat.

  • “All natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “always safe.” “Just because it’s labeled ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a better choice,” Dr. Marsella says. “Most of them are safe, but some individual horses can have reactions.” Tea tree oil, eucalyptus, henna and cedar are the most common offenders.

Hair-Coat-Friendly Ingredients

Look for these ingredients when selecting products to keep your horse’s hair coat healthy and shiny.


  • Aloe vera

  • Wheat germ oil

  • Lanolin

  • Jojoba oil

  • Propylene glycol


  • Ethyl oleate

  • Lignoceryl erucate

Gentle herbs:

  • Chamomile

  • Lavender

  • Calendula

  • Comfrey

Testing Grooming Products

Before applying any new topical on a large portion of your horse, use it on a test spot first and wait 24 hours to be sure it does not cause an irritant reaction. If you see redness, swelling, hives, scaling or if your horse’s skin becomes itchy or overly sensitive, you probably don’t want to use that product. If you think a horse is having a reaction to a product, immediately rinse as much off as possible with water.

Skin Conditions in Horses

Bacteria, fungi, yeast and other microorganisms live in a beneficial balance on healthy equine skin. But assaults such as poor nutrition, physical disturbances to the skin and long-term dampness can disrupt that balance, allowing some organisms to overgrow.

  • Causes: Stress from travel or exercise and excessive moisture from sweat and bathing can upset this balance. “It’s precipitated by high temperatures, high humidity and frequent bathing,” Dr. Marsella says. “Any trauma to the skin, especially if it’s constantly wet, will lead to over-colonization of the bacteria on the skin.”

  • Symptoms: Itching, pain, hair loss, crusting, dandruff and scaling are signs of a bacterial infection.

  • Treatment: Includes topical therapy and perhaps antibiotics for severe cases. Mud fever, cinch itch and ringworm are all fungal infections that can occur in horses, among others.

Sunburn is especially prevalent during the hot, summer months of competition and can be a frustrating reality for many showmen. Sun exposure can break up the hair protein, resulting in an overall dry and brittle coat.

  • Causes: The pink skin beneath blazed faces and white leg markings is the most susceptible, particularly if the skin has been subjected to other stress, such as excessive drying or improper nutrition.

  • Symptoms: Redness, pain, swelling, blistering, cracking of the skin and hair loss are signs of sunburn in horses.

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Learn more at www.proelitehorsefeed.com.