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Preventing Equine Sunburns: Preventative Measures

By Jeffrey Rolo

In the first part of this series we learned about photosensitization and the direct causes of horse sunburns, so now that we know the root causes we're ready to do battle with equine sunburns and help protect our equine partners.

First, the bad news: since heightened vulnerability to the sun's rays is usually a matter of genetics (photosensitization aside, since this is a temporary condition), there really isn't any magic bullet that can forever protect our horse from developing a painful sunburn. If your horse's skin doesn't contain much pigment, there isn't anything we can do to change that.

Now the good news: there are various corrective remedies that you can take which, while perhaps not always convenient, can be effective.

Avoid the Sun!

Yeah, yeah… I know, there's a wise guy in every crowd. But I'm actually serious when I make this recommendation.

Depending upon the region in which you live, it's often a good idea to work and/or pasture horses during the morning hours and the early evening hours. Keep them protected from exposure to the sun during its most potent hours (generally around noon to 5:00 p.m.).

If you pasture your horse all day long, create a lean-to or a shelter for your horse so that he can rest in the shade if the sun starts getting to be too much for him. Don't automatically assume that the existence of shelter will be enough. Some horses will relax under the shelter much of the day, while others will allow their appetites to overrule their common sense and thus choose to remain exposed most of the day until it's too late. Most horses are quick to use shelters during the dog days of Summer, but there's always one or two that will defiantly challenge the sun.

Sunscreens and Zinc Oxide

The same sunscreens we use to protect ourselves can also be used to protect our horses, so if your horse has regions that are susceptible to burning then be sure to apply healthy doses of sunscreen and/or zinc oxide.

Many horse products such as fly sprays or conditioners include some form of sunscreen protection, but I wouldn't recommend depending on them. If I know that my horse's blaze is a trouble spot, I would rather apply a "real" sunscreen to his nose, ears and eyes. I'd rather know my horse is getting full protection rather than token amounts of protection from products not specifically designed for sunscreen protection.

As a horse grazes throughout the day, the sunscreen will eventually be rubbed off, thus leaving him vulnerable to the sun. This can be maddening since most sunscreens are invisible, so it's difficult for the owner to know when another dose most be applied. Well… if you're willing to allow your horse to temporarily look a bit goofy, here's a dirty little secret some horse owners use: colored sunscreens and sunblocks!

Avon makes a sunscreen (Avon Sun: Kids Disappearing Color Sunscreen) for children that appears blue when applied, and within minutes the blue disappears and becomes colorless. This is great for ensuring complete coverage over problematic areas, but the downside is that you won't observe natural fading of the sunscreen as the day progresses since it becomes invisible shortly after being applied.

Ready to take things to the next step? How about a colored sunblock? Not only do sunblocks provide more protection from the sun (since they don't absorb into the skin like sunscreens), there are colored varieties that are popular among surfers and are eye-catching to say the least. Imagine your horse sporting a hot pink, neon green or lavender muzzle!

Hey… I did say this trick might make your horse look a bit goofy, right? But the advantage of a colored sunblock is that you'll immediately notice when the sunblock has been rubbed away by your horse's grazing. Once the bright color fades, so too does the protection.

There aren't a lot of companies out there that offer colored sunblocks (to my knowledge), but one of the more popular brands is Zinka. Zinka allegedly doesn't stain skin or hair despite the bright colors it offers, and it can be had for around $6.00 a tube (though you may have to search for a store online if no local stores offer this product).

The Horse's Coat

Sometimes a horse owner will search for ways to thicken a horse's natural coat in an effort to provide more protection against the sun. In my opinion this isn't a terribly productive route to take for two reasons:

  1. Although you can take measures to promote healthier hair, ultimately genetics will play the largest role in determining the thickness of your horse's coat.
  2. While thicker hair certainly does protect against the sun better than bare skin, ultimately the skin's pigment plays a greater role in determining susceptibility to equine sunburn than the hair does.

So while it doesn't hurt to try and thicken your horse's coat a bit if it appears to be abnormally sparse, overall I wouldn't stress about it too much. Have a vet check over your horse and if he believes that the horse is perfectly healthy, it's best to accept the fact that your horse's genetics has granted him a thinner coat.

That being said, if you would like to promote a healthier coat it would be a good idea to add ground flax seed to your horse's grain or feed. Do not add whole flax seeds to the feed since they are harder to digest and could potentially pose a choking hazard.

Flaxseed can provide almost miraculous results for horses. Flax seed can help a horse in many ways, but in this article we'll focus on the horse's coat. This supplement aids in shedding, promotes hair growth, lends a healthy shine to coats and can even assist with dandruff. Just remember that while flax seed is very effective and certainly worthy of trying, it can't overrule genetics.

We're almost finished with this series. In the final installment we'll learn about a final preventative measure as well as look at ways to treat equine sunburns.



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