Summer Haircoat Tips
Summertime, and the horse's coat should shine. Under the lights of the show ring or in the sunlight in pasture, a well-cared for horse displays the bloom of health. A summer coat in top condition gleams, and the hairs lie smoothly in a single plane. When you see a horse with a good coat, you will need to stand closer than four feet to be able to discern the pattern of individual hairs that make up the coat. The coat should be a rich, full color. A chestnut, bay, black, or sorrel coat will shimmer as it reflects light.
Coat Growth and Replacement
Skin and hair are epithelial tissue, which protect the horse as well as making him beautiful. Hair grows out of a follicle, or a tiny pit in the skin. Follicles originate in the dermis, the tissue layer below the epidermis (outer layer of skin). A hair passes through the follicular sheath to the skin surface.
The active, or anagen, phase of hair growth occurs when a follicle produces a hair shaft. In the resting, or telogen, phase, the hair is complete. The root separates, and eventually a new hair grows and dislodges the old one.
A single hair has a hair root, which anchors it, and a hair shaft. Hair itself is protein (keratin). Keratin is the same protein that makes up the hoof.
Although hair itself is lifeless, it's moisturized by skin oils. The sebaceous gland, connected to the hair follicle, keeps the hair in condition. The gland secretes a lubricating substance called sebum. These skin oils coat the hairs so they lie flat and shine.
The horse, like the goat and dog, grows and sheds hair with the seasons. He grows a thicker winter coat in the fall, and a summer coat in the spring. The length of the days determines the seasonal shedding.
In spring, longer days mean more hours of sunlight. As the winter coat sheds out, the shiny summer coat becomes evident. Shedding times vary in length, depending on the environment, the horse's state of health, and grooming procedures. A blanketed horse living in a warm barn might show little change between winter and summer coats.
Heredity also influences hair growth. A well-bred, fine-coated horse, which grows less of a shaggy coat in winter, might shed out faster than his "cold-blood" cousin.
Hair and Hoof
The horse's diet affects the quality of his coat. Proteins, vitamins, and minerals all contribute to the health of hair and hoof. Both hair and hoof are composed of protein. Nutrients that benefit hoof growth also help hair.
Mature horses with a protein deficiency show slower hair growth and shedding, along with slower hoof growth. Poor quality of hair and hoof also is a sign of a protein deficiency.
The amino acids link together to form protein. The horse's diet must contain essential amino acids. Those amino acids that contribute to the hair coat include lysine, methionine, and cystine. Methionine, a sulfur-containing amino acid, is found in the hoof naturally.
Fats help the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A and B vitamins. Vitamin A is needed for epithelial cells. A deficiency may be the cause of a dry, lusterless coat.
Don Kapper, Equine Nutritionist of Buckeye Equine Nutrition, explained, "Vitamin A is high in fresh forages. But when you bale hay and put it in the hay mow, the half-life is 60 days. When hay is six months old, all the vitamin A has been oxidized.
"The horse can store vitamin A in the liver to last a minimum of six months. So around January, February, and March, we see skin problems. The liver stores are used up, and if the vitamin isn't provided in the grain mix to complement hay, you see problems occur."
In the spring, horses which return to lush pasture consume a high vitamin A content. Kapper said, "You see all the hair shed off and a beautiful slick coat underneath. The vitamin A content is equivalent of beta carotene, and there's 4-5% fat in fresh pasture. The horse slicks out and shines up."
Sulfur is a mineral that is an ingredient of the hoof wall, comprising 4% of the wall. Nutrients that contain this mineral include methionine, cystine, and biotin.
Zinc is an inorganic element, a trace mineral essential to the diet. Zinc contributes to maintaining skin and hair, and the hoof wall is .0125% zinc.
Kapper noted how the zinc level is more critical as an addition to the horse's diet. He said, "When we analyze forages, the average zinc level is 20 to 28 parts per million of zinc. NRC says the minimum for maintenance level of the horse is 40 parts per million, so forage today won't meet the minimum requirements."
He noted that hoof supplements are "basically zinc with vitamin A added and methionine added. Most owners are feeding a deficient diet, and they add those levels (in the supplement) to the diet, and they see improvements."
Jaime Lopez, PhD, is a nutritionist with Pet-Ag, Inc. He said, "Zinc and biotin are well-known to help the structure of the hair itself. Horses do need these products."
A study performed on horses showed the effects of feeding a mineral mix (increased amounts of zinc, manganese, and copper) for 75 days. Researchers compared hair samples before and after the changed diet. Microscopic photos showed a smoother surface on the hair as a result of feeding the chelated minerals.
Supplementary feed traditionally has been oil-based. Horsemen used to rely on oils, such as linseed oil or corn oil.
Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research, said, "The most noted information in the horse is the effect of a high-fat diet on the coat. Now the fat used is rice bran. It's 20% fat."
Soybean meal is another source of fat used in commercial products. Hair coat supplements such as Mirra-Coat and Shine 'n Win Hair Coat Enhancer list soybean products in their formulations. Linoleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid, contributes to the production of sebum. Essential in the diet, the amount for the horse is recommended at 0.5%.
However, too much fat can be detrimental. Fat supplementation might not benefit the coat, as cited in the textbook Equine Clinical Nutrition. Author Lon Lewis reported research that detected no changes in skin, hair coat, or hooves of two groups of ponies. One group received low levels of fat and linoleic acid; the other group received soy oil added to increase total fat to 7% and linoleic acid to 4%.
Grooming contributes to a gleaming coat. It provides a thorough removing of dirt and friction of skin and hair. Regular, daily grooming invigorates the skin. Currying and brushing stimulate the production of sebum and distribute the natural oils over the hair shafts.
The coat of a gray, roan, or dun might not gleam like a mirror, as will the chestnut, bay, black, or Palomino. But with "rubbing," these coats also will look attractive.
Professional grooms recommend vigorous rubbing, or what the English call "strapping." Some contend that no external product can replace the shine of a coat that's been rubbed daily. This task takes a lot of elbow grease, or up to thirty to sixty minutes each day for a cleaning routine.
For that show bloom, energetic grooming maintains a fine, short coat. The coat's natural oils also attract dirt and dust. Grooming sweeps dirt from the coat.
With clean skin and a short coat, perspiration will evaporate more freely and the skin will be kept cool. In the summer, horses sweat more during exercise. Sweat can damage the coat when allowed to dry on the hairs. If you turn a sweaty horse out in the sun, the combination of sunlight and salty sweat can bleach the coat.
Friction against the skin brings the horse's natural oils to the surface. When you massage the skin with the nubs of a rubber brush or curry-comb, you stimulate oil glands close by the hair follicles. The oil softens the skin as it is distributed by friction.
You can also use your hands, on body and legs, to promote circulation. Rub with your palms flat to stimulate the oils in the coat. Five minutes can bring a glisten to the hairs, either with or without first spraying with a coat conditioner.
With firm pressure, rub downwards below knees and hocks, and upwards above. If you dampen your palms, you'll pick up loose hairs and help keep the coat short. With a horse that is naturally fine-skinned, keep your hands dry, since you could loosen too much hair.
You might prefer rubbing with a cactus cloth, stable rubber, towel, or burlap sack. After completing the regular daily currying and brushing, briskly rub the cloth backwards and forwards into the coat to create a steady friction against the skin. For a gleaming coat, you will rub up to 30 minutes daily.
You can help a coat to shed out through grooming and exercise. As spring nears, encourage shedding by keeping the horse warm in the stable and through exercise. Work the horse into a sweat, then rub the coat dry with a rough-textured cloth. Rub both with and against the lay of the coat.
Regular currying will remove dead hairs from the coat. Use a shedding blade with the lay of the coat--the serrated metal teeth snag the dead hairs and pull them free.
Clipping a horse in the spring, when the new hairs replace the old, can damage the coat. Your chestnut or bay horse can turn the color of oatmeal, with no sheen to the coat. If you do have to clip at this time, you can try an oil rinse afterwards. Add a capful of mineral oil or baby oil to a gallon of water, and rub the coat regularly.
Coating The Coat
You can enhance rubbing with external applications to improve the skin and coat. Topical applications help replace the skin's natural oils and remove sweat. Shampoos can affect the coat's shine by removing sebum. The result can be a dry skin, which can be more prone to dermatitis. Look for a shampoo that's strong, yet gentle. It should have the strength to cleanse, but won't harm the skin's natural moisture. Be sure to rinse all traces of shampoo from the coat so you aren't dulling the shine you want.
You can condition the coat with a range of products. Grooms recommend warm-water rinses with additives like these: a few drops of Pine-Sol cleaner disinfectant (pine oil adds sheen and helps the hair to lie down); Bigeloil, Vetrolin liniment, or mineral oil, to remove sweat; or sponging the body from a bucket of warm water and vinegar.
If you choose to apply a commercial coat dressing or hair polish, avoid oily products. Use such moisturizers only on a clean horse. When the coat is still damp, spray lightly with a coat dressing, or rub dressing into the hair with a cotton grooming mitt. Moisten the cloth and rub the coat vigorously with the grain of the hair, then brush.
For a gray horse, you can try to add glow by rinsing with a bluing solution. Add two squirts of bluing to a bucket of water, or one capful to three gallons. (On horses with sensitive skin, watch for any negative reaction.) A roan gray probably won't shine, as the coat tends to absorb light rather than reflecting it.
For a coat in top show condition, keep a horse indoors out of the sun. The sun's rays can bleach the hairs of the coat, changing the coat's color and drying the hairs. Staying in a stall during the day protects a show coat. Shelter also protects the horse with a white muzzle from painful sunburn.
Some grooms, however, contend that sunlight benefits the horse's hair coat, and that it only causes damage to a sweaty coat. They claim sunlight will not dull the coat if you completely remove any sweat before turning the horse out.
If a horse's coat does become faded by the sun, you can try to rejuvenate it. First bathe the horse, then mix equal parts of vinegar and olive oil to sponge all over the coat. Rub the mixture in well, and leave it on for three days before bathing the horse to remove it.
Even in the summer, clothing can provide protection for the coat. You can outfit your horse in a lightweight fly sheet, made of woven mesh fabric. The mesh protects the horse from damage from insect bites and the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Friction from the sheet's inner surface can add shine to the coat. A nylon sheet will "polish" the coat, moving against the skin as the horse moves. Be sure the horse and sheet are clean. On a dirty or sweaty coat, manmade fabrics might cause skin conditions or even a rash.
Verify that the blanket covers the horse adequately. A correctly fitted sheet should cover the belly, and at least part of the gaskin. The sheet shouldn't appear tight over the points of the shoulders, or pressure can rub off tips of the hairs.
Like other mammals, horses can develop skin and hair problems unrelated to nutrition. Environmental elements can cause certain disorders. A rough coat can be the sign of a problem. Instead of lying flat, the hairs form an uneven surface. The ends of the hairs look dull and reddish, and they stand up. A buildup of dead skin, dirt, and loose hairs affect the appearance of the coat.
Dermatitis, or inflammatory skin disease, can include signs such as cracks, lesions, nodules, and wheals. Skin diseases can be bacterial, fungal, parasitic, allergic, or scaling. Some common conditions include rain rot, seen in some climates during the summer. This condition is caused by the anaerobic bacterial organism Dermatophilus congolensis. It is not a fungus.
Avoid rain rot by keeping skin dry (such as under blankets or leg wraps). Don't clip a horse with wet skin. Prevent transmitting the infection through isolating the horse's tack, blankets, and grooming tools.
Horses can develop summer sores, caused by stomach worms. Sweet itch is an allergic reaction to bites of midges. General itching, due to bites of stable fly, black fly, or mosquito, can cause a horse to rub and so lose patches of hair.
In the spring, the horse might show signs of abnormal shedding. Some animals show excessive alopecia (loss of hair) on face, shoulders, and rump, yet recover spontaneously. Others might fail to shed the winter coat (hypertrichosis), which can be due to pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction.
Manufacturers offer various topical solutions to combat skin problems and hair loss. You can choose among shampoos, sprays, lotions, and creams.
You might have to treat fungal infections or the lesions of rain rot. Antibacterial shampoos--which contain ingredients like iodine, chlorhexidine, and benzoil peroxide--can help prevent and correct skin problems. These products aim to neutralize skin conditions by drying the skin.
Other products aim to lubricate the hair to stimulate growth. Advertising claims might promise rapid results, and the labels of competing products list confusing recipes of divergent substances.
The current trend is toward botanical moisturizing ingredients, such as aloe vera, lanolin, avocado, coconut oil, or tea tree oil. Instead of coating the hair shaft with petroleum-based products, such natural substances are said to lubricate hair and skin. The silicone-based sprays add brighteners that help to seal the coat from dirt. Several popular products tout the benefits of silicone; others contest its dominance by claims of "silicone-free." Some grooms feel these dressings make the coat too slippery and "clog the pores."
Insect repellent also can cause skin problems while discouraging biting insects. Some fly sprays are blended with lanolin, aloe vera, and/or sunscreen to help protect the skin.
Whatever formulations you choose, remember that a horse in good health "blooms." Skin and coat in top condition reflect the care you provide.
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.
POLL: Managing Working Horses