Healthy Skin Healthy Horse
Horse and Rider|Fall 2019
Healthy Skin Healthy Horse
Learn how to give your horse a healthy glow with a back-to-basics skin-care routine.
Barb Crabbe, DVM

Did you know that the skin is the largest organ in your horse’s body? In fact, the skin of an average 1,000-pound horse is likely to weigh 60 pounds, or 6% of his body weight. This amazing organ stays healthy by constantly replacing itself to perform its vital role of protecting your horse’s body. Dead skin cells on the surface slough away and are replaced with new, young cells in a cycle that takes about 17 days.

Why is it so important for your horse to have healthy skin? A sleek, shiny haircoat and luxurious mane and tail might be things of beauty, but the benefits of healthy skin go much deeper.

His skin not only protects his sensitive underlying tissues but also has immune functions that help him ward off disease. This amazing organ also provides a mechanism to repel insects and detects outside stimuli, such as heat, cold, pain, and touch. Simply put, healthy skin means a healthy horse.

Here, I’ll start with an in-depth look at your horse’s skin. Then, I’ll give you a rundown of three challenges you and your horse must overcome to keep his skin healthy. Finally, I’ll outline a basic, seven-step skin-care routine designed to give your horse that healthy glow.


Your horse’s skin is composed of two primary layers: the epidermis (outer layer) and the dermis (inner layer). The epidermis, just 0.05 millimeters thick, is composed of four important cell types: keratinocytes, Langerhans cells, melanocytes, and Merkel cells.

Keratinocytes are protective cells on the skin’s surface that are constantly being renewed. Newly created keratinocytes migrate from the lower layers to the skin’s surface. These cells become tougher through a process called keratinization.

Langerhans cells are part of the immune system. They recognize unknown invaders to help your horse fight off infection and destroy foreign substances.

Melanocytes produce melanin, the pigment that colors the skin and helps protect it from the damaging effects of sun. Merkel cells recognize the sensations of heat, cold, and touch. Together, these cells form the primary barrier that protects the inside of your horse from the outside world.

The dermis, or middle layer of the skin, ranges in thickness from one to six millimeters. The dermis is primarily made up of proteins (elastin and collagen) that provide a framework for blood vessels and nerves. These proteins also support hair follicles and sweat and oil glands.

The structures of the dermis provide physical protection, help control temperature, repel water, and support immune functions to protect against foreign invaders.

Beneath the dermis lies the subcutis (meaning “beneath the skin”). Although not considered truly part of the skin, this layer is still important when considering skin health. The subcutis is made up of fat and connective tissues that help support the dermis and epidermis, as well as the subcutaneous muscles that produce that all-important “twitch” response to repel insects.


The health of your horse’s skin is challenged daily by everything from weather conditions (hot, cold, wet) to insect bites. These challenges can lead to a variety of problems that most commonly fall into three categories: (1) infections; (2) inflammation; and (3) trauma. These categories are often intertwined.

1. Infections. Microorganisms including bacteria and fungi can take up residence in your horse’s skin, leading to a skin infection. Such infections commonly involve swelling and pain. Your horse is at risk if he lives in an environment where conditions (such as extreme moisture) favor survival of these microorganisms, if he is in contact with other horses, or if he has some other, underlying skin condition that threatens skin health, such as an allergy or wound. Your horse might need an antimicrobial medication to cure his infectious skin condition.

‘THE HEALTH of your horse’s skin is challenged daily by everything from weather conditions (hot, cold, wet) to insect bites.’


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Fall 2019