With the recent snow and continuous rain fall we’ve had across the UK, the topic of mud fever seems to be on every equestrian’s lips.
Mud fever (scientifically known as pastern dermatitis), is a common skin condition affecting many horses. It is also known as scratches, greasy heel or cracked heel. Just to cause further confusion, mud fever is not always caused by mud! In some instances, it can be caused by sand irritation or a compromised immune system in the horse.
It primarily affects the lower limbs of horses, where their continuous exposure to wet and cold environments causes the skin to become soft and breaks down the natural protective barrier. This leaves it vulnerable to the variety of bacteria and fungi that naturally thrive in muddy conditions to penetrate the skin causing irritation, heat, swelling and pain. The characteristic uncomfortable scabs and sores usually appear around the pastern of one of more of the legs and if not dealt with quickly, can worsen and spread further up the leg.
If you suspect a horse has mud fever, it’s always best to seek out a confirmed diagnosis from your vet, as it can have similar symptoms to other conditions, such as mellanders, requiring different management.
Depending on the severity, the treatment for mud fever may require simply keeping the legs clean and dry by gently washing the affected area with an antimicrobial wash (such as diluted hibiscrub) and applying a specialist cream to the scabbed areas.
Scabs may need to be removed every few days on the advice of your vet, but this must be done with caution. Removing the scabs allows the air to reach the skin and promote healing. However, removing them can be very sore for your horse, eliciting a kick reaction, so use extreme care to keep yourself safe and your horse in the least amount of discomfort.
Soaking the scabs can make them easier and less painful to remove by washing them in a suitable solution, then covering them in an antibiotic cream, wrapped with cling film, secured underneath a bandage and left overnight. More severe cases of mud fever might need systemic antibiotics or antifungals or may require sedation to treat the affected areas if the sores are very painful to the touch and the horse appears lame.
PREVENTING MUD FEVER
The simplest way to prevent mud fever is by keeping your horse’s legs clean and dry by avoiding prolonged exposure to wet and muddy conditions. With the typical rainfall and damp environment we endure in the winter and spring months, this is by no means an easy task!
Many owners find their own way to keep mud fever at bay and you may find some solutions work better than others for your own individual horse. Preventive measures like maintaining cleanliness, paddock management, and leg clipping play crucial roles in reducing the risk.
- For horses spending time out at pasture, the key is to gently wash the legs of mud and dry them after turnout, but not every day! Avoid excessive washing and scrubbing of the lower legs as this may cause more irritation.
- If possible, bring horses into a stable or a dry, clean area to allow the legs time to dry off each day. Leg wraps can be useful to dry the legs faster. Once dry, gently brush off any dried mud.
- Check your horse’s legs everyday by running your hands down each leg to feel for scabs, matted hair, or bald patches and look for wounds. The faster you can spot an issue, the easier it will be to treat and manage.
- Clipping the feathers of heavier breeds can significantly aid in mud fever prevention. This reduces the area for mud and moisture to accumulate and make the legs easier to clean and dry effectively. More on this below -
- If your horse lives out full time, you will need to undertake the best pasture management to avoid your horse spending the majority of their time in waterlogged, muddy turnout. If you have enough land, rotate the paddocks to drier pasture or use electric fencing to keep them away from the wettest and muddiest areas of the field.
- Avoid poaching of the ground in the high traffic areas by regularly rotating the entry way to the paddock, hay feeding areas and water troughs. Alternatively, provide hard standing in these areas instead with the use of field mats or gravel.
- Sand can also irritate your horse’s legs so after working in abrasive sandy arenas, wash off the legs carefully afterwards. Be extra careful when using protective boots and ensure they fit properly and do not cause rubbing of the skin.
- Keep your horse’s stable bedding clean and dry. Dirty bedding can also cause mud fever so be sure to remove wet bedding and skip out daily. Avoid deep litter beds where possible.
- Waterproof your horses legs each time before turnout. There are many topical lotions, barrier creams or antimicrobial powders on the market to try. They also make brushing off the mud after turnout much easier once the legs are dry.
- Protective turnout boots or mud socks can be helpful, but ensure the best fit for your horse as rubbing or getting mud/grit underneath them will cause more damage to the skin.
CLIPPING FOR PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
From the points above, it’s clear to understand why preventing mud fever can be a challenge and for feathered horses, keeping the skin of the legs dry is even more difficult.
The long hairs on the bottom of heavier horses, cobs, draughts and mountain and moorland breeds are there to offer protection for the lower legs from brambles, and keep the mud and water out, so it seems counter intuitive to remove them. However, many owners of these breeds find that when the feathers get very wet, they take much longer to dry, meaning the skin stays wetter for longer, increasing the risk of mud fever taking hold.
Feather mites and other leg conditions that cause irritation to the skin under the long hair also leave these horses more susceptible. It’s also much harder to detect wounds and scabs under thick feathers, often leaving mild conditions going unnoticed before it becomes a significant problem. Lots of hair on the legs also makes treating mud fever more difficult in terms of keeping the legs clean and dry and to apply creams to the skin.
THE BENEFITS OF CLIPPING FEATHERS
Clipping long, heavy feathers short makes dealing with and preventing mud fever much more manageable. It can also help to expedite recovery and prevent further complications.
Clipping the feathers minimizes the surface area where mud and moisture can collect, as there is less hair for the mud to cling to, to aid keeping the legs clean. Air will be able to easily circulate the skin, significantly reducing drying time and aid healing. With the feathers removed, owners can easily spot issues early on and get a better feel of the skin beneath the hair to locate any scabs or matted hair and deal with mud fever quickly.
Shorter hair also aids the control of feather mites that cause irritation underneath thick feathers, further reducing the risk of mud fever infection. Clipping also facilitates the easier application of topical treatments and barrier creams for brushing off dried mud and allows for more even compression when bandaging the legs for support and manage swelling.
Above: Masterclip cordless HD Roamer and V-series clippers
HOW TO CLIP THE FEATHERS
For removing feathers, a heavy-duty clipper such as our Hunter, V-series or cordless HD roamer will easily breeze though the coarse hair in no time and are great clippers for getting off the worst of the hair. Ideal if you just need quick feather removal and there are no skin issues detected underneath the feathers.
However, many horses can be a little more sensitive to the vibrations of larger, more powerful clippers on the legs, so a medium duty A5 clipper such as our cordless MD Roamer and Royale clipper could be a more suitable option, especially if your horse already has mud fever. These smaller handsets produce less vibration, have a quieter operation and are perfect for clipping and trimming sensitive areas and if the legs are already itchy.
The smaller size of medium duty clippers allows them to better manoeuvre around the contours of the leg with a compact 5cm size head to clip around the pastern and narrow space of the heel. A5 clippers have a vast range of compatible clipper blades in narrow and wide widths, plus a selection of combs attachments available to thin and maintain a smart look of the feathers all year round.
They are also a great choice of clipper for partial body clipping, hogging and leg blending. Ideal for show preparation, detailed clipping and trimming, a medium duty clipper can be an invaluable investment, even if you already have a larger heavy-duty clipper.
Above: Masterclip cordless MD Roamer horse clipper
If your horse has mud fever and you’re clipping the feathers to manage the condition, it’s better to go slowly and if needed for safety, use sedation. *Remember that all horses can react quickly, even when they are under sedation and especially if they are itchy, or sore. Bringing your body close to the legs and hooves when clipping can put you at greater risk of a kick or being trodden on.
- First and foremost, before clipping, gently wash the legs to get rid of all the mud, grit and any exudate from weeping sores that may snag the clipper blades and cause discomfort for your horse.
- When the legs are dry, clip with a medium cut blade (around 3mm) or longer to avoid catching the scabs.
- Clip down the leg, going with the lay of the hair. This will leave a slightly longer, smooth finish. If you need a closer cut, clip again going against the grain of the hair. A shorter trim is ideal for those needing treatment creams applied.
- To trim the hair on the heels, lift the leg and use our Showmate II cordless trimmers or our A5 clippers to trim the hair in the narrow space.
- Use freshly sharpened clipper blades for clipping feathers and have a second set of blades to hand, should the first blade go blunt. The density and coarseness of feathers and difficulty in getting them completely clean makes them more prone to blunting clipper blades more quickly.
- Use a trimmer or bull nose scissors to trim any hairs close to the affected areas.
- Avoid getting trimmed hair into any sores that may irritate the wounds.
- Gently wipe away clipped hair from the leg with a soft cloth or very soft brush and apply creams to areas of mud fever after clipping.
Above: Masterclip blue Hunter clipper and cordless MD Roamer