Horse-Showing Shine, Part 1

Keep your horse’s skin and hair coat looking their best to make an impression in the show ring.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal.

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

In this two-part series, 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.

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 may 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.

AQHA's Beginner’s Guide to Showing report is packed with valuable information to help you gear up for your first horse show, find Quarter Horse trainers and more.

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 may cause slow hair growth and shedding, delayed hair re-growth, 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: the 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.

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

Ground flax seed 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 coffee bean grinder.

Are you ready for your first show? Start off on the right foot with tips and advice from AQHA's Beginner Guide to Showing report. Find Quarter Horse trainers, get grooming tips and learn the latest fashion trends in horse show attire and more.

In addition to unbalanced nutrition, stress of any form 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 the 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.

Rub a Dub Dub

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.”

“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.”

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.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 in this series, where you’ll learn how to find alternatives to harsh chemicals and how to treat common skin conditions.

Need help choosing supplements, grooming products or nutrition for your horse? Look to AQHA Corporate Partners SmartPak, Farnam and Nutrena for expert assistance and great deals.