Winter leg care for horses

Winter is always a difficult time for horses and their carers. With the drastic turn in the weather we’ve had over the last few weeks, it looks like we’re facing into months of struggling with cold, wet weather, muddy fields and short days, while keeping hunters fit and sound, or trying to get horses ready for the competitive season ahead.

Many of us turn horses out for at least a few hours each day, and this is great for their mental wellbeing, especially at a time of year when for those of us not blessed with floodlight arenas or indoor schools, opportunities to exercise are limited by short daylight. However, watching fields turn to muddy bogs is not much fun, and seeing your horse’s precious legs encased in mud is even worse. So what can be done to help prevent mud fever which is the most worrying result of having horses standing in winter fields for hours or days?

Mud fever in horses

Mud Fever is caused by the bacterium Dermatophilus congolensis. This is always present but under normal conditions cannot penetrate horses’ skin. Once the epidermis has been softened by constant immersion in wet mud, it is easily damaged, and the bacterium can easily take hold in the smallest of abrasions.
Horse leg with Mud Fever
Prevention is all about minimizing the root causes – keeping legs clean and dry as much as possible, and reducing the risk of abrasion.

Field management is the obvious place to start. If possible, rotating land use and not over-grazing will help, although once a field has been badly cut up, there is little that can be done until better weather arrives. Turning horses out in ones and two’s may reduce the incitement to riot, as will making sure that horses are warm, well-rugged and with adequate shelter from bad weather. Although feeding hay or haylage in the field can be wasteful, it is worth thinking about if your horse starts creating near feed time. He’ll be calmer if he is not quite so hungry. Another measure to minimise contact with mud is to use electric fencing to keep horses away from poached gateways.

The right amount of hair on the heel also helps – heavy feathers prevent the skin ever drying out, but closely clipped legs are very vulnerable to scratches. The best compromise is to trim shaggy winter legs when dry with scissors and comb, or use the coarsest of clipper blades at the start of the winter and then let the feathers grow back. When the horse comes in, most vets do not recommend hosing the mud off, but instead let it dry, and then gently brush off the mud. Be careful not to use a dandy brush aggressively – this could damage the softened skin.

Preventing mud coming into contact with the skin is another very effective approach. Using boots especially designed to keep the leg dry and clean can be very useful. However, the boots used must be breathable, or the skin could become over-hydrated and vulnerable to infection. Equi-Chaps® Close Contact Chaps from Equilibrium Products come well down over the hoof and heel area, helping to protect the skin in these vulnerable areas. They fit like a second skin and help to keep the horse’s legs dry and mud free.
Equi-Chaps Close Contact Chaps
Although the days are short and legs are dirty, do make every effort to check for Mud Fever daily – catching it early makes treatment much easier. The most distinctive symptom to look for is the small scabs that form on the lower legs, typically at the back of the pastern first and then extending up the leg. These will seem like small lumps of dried mud, but removal will be painful for the horse, and cause skin and hair to come away. Underneath will be red and sore, with a little bleeding.

Running your hands down a dry, clean pastern, the skin will feel rough and lumpy underneath the hair (almost like rough sand paper), and be sore. There may also be heat and swelling, with lameness in more severe cases.

If you suspect that your horse or pony has Mud Fever, you must take action immediately as it can become an extremely serious complaint very quickly.

Treatment is in the first instance a matter for your vet. While this condition is common, it is not trivial, and good professional advice is essential. Part of the treatment is bound to be removal of the root cause – the constantly wet and muddy legs. So you will need to stable the horse, or at least move it to an area of dry ground.

Your vet will probably recommend the scabs are removed, so anti-bacterial products can reach the infection. This needs to be done gently, to minimize further damage. Rubbing in a specialist anti-bacterial lotion or cream such as Protection Plus helps, as does applying a warm poultice to the area. If the symptoms do not improve or if you have any concerns or doubts consult with your Veterinary Surgeon who will be able to advise on the best course of action.

Open sores can become infected by other bacterial infections that cause secondary complications, making them very difficult to heal. This can lead to proud skin, permanent hair loss and in severe cases the need for skin grafts.

It may take months for your horse or pony to recover from a severe attack of Mud Fever. During this time they will be off work and may require continual veterinary support, antibiotic treatment and long-term stable rest.

Failure to take effective action early after diagnosis of Mud Fever can lead to months of problems and pain for your horse, as well as a great deal of expense. So particularly in this wet cold winter, when we are all concerned with budget pressures as well as horses welfare, it makes every sense to try to prevent this very unpleasant condition.

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