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Why Is My Horse Losing Hair? Understanding Equine Alopecia

Last updated: August 24, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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When my granddaughter’s horse began shedding hair in noticeable patches, alarm bells rang. Seeing swathes of bare skin replacing what was once a lustrous coat is a heart-stopping moment for any horse lover. “Why is my horse losing hair?” is the pressing question.

Beyond the desire for a shiny coat lies the potential for serious health implications. Equine hair loss can be attributed to a myriad of causes: from pesky insects, bacterial invasions, skin infections, and heat stress to more sinister underlying medical conditions or allergies. These irritants often cause our equine friends to itch and rub, exacerbating the issue.

Depending on the root cause, such hair loss patterns may be localized or extensive, fleeting or enduring. Delve into this article to unravel the mystery of equine alopecia. We’ll dissect the many culprits and, crucially, highlight preventive measures and treatments readily at hand.

Most horse owners want their horse’s coats to look shiny and healthy, and hair loss has the opposite effect. But more importantly, hair loss may be an early sign of an underlying medical condition. Many of the causes of equine hair loss can be prevented and treated with over-the-counter products.

Picture of a horse with rain rot.

Understanding Hair Loss in Horses

Every horse owner is familiar with the routine shedding of their equine companions. Just like humans, horses naturally lose hair as part of a cyclical process. Depending on the season, especially during spring and fall, horses shed their old coats to adjust to temperature changes.

This is absolutely normal and is Mother Nature’s way of helping them adapt to their environment. However, there’s a marked difference between this seasonal shedding and alopecia. Alopecia isn’t just about losing a few strands here and there.

It’s about significant, sometimes rapid, hair loss that leaves patches of skin exposed. If you’re finding unusual bald patches on your horse’s coat or if the shedding seems excessive, you might be dealing with something more than just the typical shedding season.

A Brief Overview of Equine Alopecia

Equine alopecia refers to hair loss in horses that goes beyond the natural shedding cycle. This condition can be influenced by a variety of factors, both external and internal. From skin infections, parasites, and allergies to hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, the reasons behind alopecia can be as diverse as they are complex.

It’s crucial to differentiate between natural shedding and alopecia because the latter often indicates an underlying health issue that requires attention. While a patch here or there might not seem like a big deal, it could be the first sign of a bigger problem.

For the well-being of our beloved equines, it’s essential to stay informed, observant, and proactive in addressing hair loss symptoms. In the grand scheme of horse care, understanding the intricacies of hair loss is vital.

It’s not just about ensuring they look their best but more about ensuring they feel their best. And as any horse enthusiast will tell you, a healthy horse is a happy horse!

Common Causes of Hair Loss in Horses

Hair loss in horses, or equine alopecia, is more than just an aesthetic concern. It can be a telltale sign of underlying health issues. To address it effectively, it’s crucial to understand its common causes, which can be broadly categorized into external and internal factors.

Picture of a horse with horseflies around its face,

a. External Factors

  • Insects and Parasites (e.g., mites, lice)A common cause of hair loss in horses is infestation by pests. Mites, lice, and other parasites can make a home in a horse’s coat, leading to itching and discomfort. As the horse scratches or bites at these irritants, it can lead to hair loss.
  • Skin Infections (Fungal or Bacterial)Just like humans, horses are also susceptible to skin infections. Conditions like rain rot (a bacterial infection) can lead to hair loss in patches. Bacterial infections can similarly disrupt the normal health of the skin and result in hair shedding.
  • Allergies (Environmental, Food-based)Horses can develop allergic reactions to things in their environment, like pollen or even certain bedding materials. Food-based allergies can also manifest on the skin, leading to itchiness and subsequent hair loss.
  • Trauma or InjuryAccidents happen, and sometimes horses can sustain injuries or trauma to their skin. Whether it’s from a fence, another horse, or any other source of harm, injuries can disrupt hair growth in the affected area.
  • Sunburn or Heat StressProlonged exposure to intense sunlight can result in sunburn for horses, especially in lightly pigmented areas. This sun damage can cause the skin to peel and hair to fall out. Similarly, excessive heat can stress the horse and affect its coat health.

b. Internal Factors

  • Hormonal ImbalancesThe endocrine system plays a pivotal role in hair growth. Any imbalances, like issues with the thyroid gland, can lead to hair thinning or loss in horses.
  • Systemic Diseases or ConditionsSome diseases affect the horse’s entire body, including its skin and hair. Conditions like Cushing’s disease can result in unusual hair loss patterns.
  • Nutritional DeficienciesA balanced diet is foundational for a horse’s overall health. Lack of essential nutrients, like certain vitamins and minerals, can negatively impact hair growth and quality.
  • Stress or Anxiety-related Hair LossJust as in humans, prolonged stress or anxiety in horses can manifest physically, leading to symptoms like hair loss. Stressors could include changes in environment, mistreatment, or even separation from a companion.

Understanding these causes is the first step in diagnosing and treating equine alopecia. With this knowledge, horse owners can take proactive measures to ensure their horses remain not only beautiful but also healthy and happy.

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Symptoms and Manifestation

When it comes to equine alopecia, recognizing the symptoms and understanding their manifestations is crucial for early intervention. Not all hair loss presents in the same way, and accompanying signs can give valuable clues about the underlying causes.

Pattern of Hair Loss

  • Localized vs. Widespread hair loss in horses can present in different patterns. Some may exhibit localized hair loss, where only specific regions or patches of the skin show balding. This is often indicative of external causes such as trauma, fungal infections, or insect bites. On the other hand, widespread hair loss covers larger areas or even the entire body. Such extensive loss can be a symptom of more systemic issues, like nutritional deficiencies or hormonal imbalances.

Associated Symptoms

  • Itching: It’s not uncommon for horses with hair loss to also exhibit signs of itching. A horse that constantly scratches, bites, or rubs against surfaces might be experiencing discomfort due to pests, allergies, or skin infections.
  • Redness: Inflamed or reddened skin usually points to irritation. This could be the result of sunburn, allergies, or the early stages of a skin infection.
  • Swelling: Swollen areas, especially if warm to the touch, can indicate more severe conditions like bacterial infections or trauma.

Temporary vs. Permanent Hair Loss

  • Temporary Hair LossSome causes of hair loss are transient. For instance, a horse might lose hair due to a seasonal allergy, but once the allergen is no longer present, the hair might grow back. Similarly, trauma-induced hair loss or those caused by short-term nutritional deficiencies can see regrowth once the underlying issue is resolved.
  • Permanent Hair LossIn some cases, hair loss can be permanent, especially if the hair follicles are severely damaged. Chronic skin conditions, severe trauma, or longstanding untreated infections can lead to irreversible hair loss.

Observing and understanding these symptoms is key to getting your horse the help it needs. Always consult with a veterinarian if you notice unusual hair loss or associated symptoms in your horse. Their expertise can guide you toward a proper diagnosis and the most effective treatment.

Picture of a horse losing hair.

Treatment and Management

When faced with equine alopecia, a proactive approach is paramount. Depending on the cause, various treatments, both external and internal, can help manage and mitigate the issue. Here’s a guide to addressing hair loss in horses with effective remedies and interventions.

a. External Treatments

  • Topical Ointments or Creams
    • Antifungal or Antibacterial: These are especially effective for horses with skin infections. Applying them directly to the affected area can combat the causative agents and promote healing.
    • Anti-itch: Hydrocortisone creams or similar products can help alleviate itching and inflammation, reducing the urge for horses to scratch or bite.
  • Shampoos and Conditioners
    • Medicated Shampoos: These can be used to treat specific conditions like fungal or bacterial infections. They cleanse the coat and target the underlying issues.
    • Moisturizing Conditioners: Dry skin can lead to hair breakage. Using a good conditioner can help restore moisture to the skin, promoting healthier hair.
  • Preventative Care
    • Parasite Prevention: Regularly applying insect repellents or using anti-parasitic sprays can keep pesky critters at bay, reducing the risk of infestations that lead to hair loss.
    • Sun Protection: For horses prone to sunburn, consider using protective sheets or equine sunscreens to shield them from harmful UV rays.

b. Internal Treatments

  • Medications or Supplements
    • Hormonal Medications: If hair loss is due to hormonal imbalances, vets might prescribe specific medications to regulate these levels.
    • Supplements: For suspected deficiencies leading to hair loss, supplements rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, biotin, and essential vitamins can be beneficial.
  • Diet Modifications
    • Balanced Diet: If the hair loss is linked to nutritional deficiencies, introducing a well-balanced diet is vital. This includes high-quality hay, grains, and fresh greens.
    • Allergy Management: If food allergies are suspected, an elimination diet can help pinpoint the culprits. Once identified, these allergens can be permanently removed from the horse’s diet.

Remember, while these treatments and management strategies can be effective, always consult with a veterinarian before making significant changes to your horse’s care regimen. Their guidance can ensure that your approach is both safe and effective.

Prevention and Long-Term Care

Maintaining the health and beauty of your horse’s coat goes beyond merely addressing the immediate concerns of hair loss. It’s about instilling practices that prevent such issues from arising in the first place and providing consistent care that ensures their long-term well-being.

Routine Checks and Grooming

  • Regular Inspection: Develop a habit of thoroughly inspecting your horse’s skin and coat during grooming sessions. Look for signs of pests, infections, or unusual patches of hair loss.
  • Brushing: Regular brushing not only removes dirt and detangles hair but also stimulates blood flow to the skin, promoting healthier hair growth. It’s also an excellent opportunity to massage and check your horse for any bumps, lumps, or sensitive areas.
  • Bathing: Cleanse your horse with appropriate shampoos and products tailored to their needs. This can help in keeping skin infections at bay and provide relief from itching or allergies.

Recognizing Early Signs

Early detection is crucial in mitigating and treating hair loss effectively.

  • Stay Vigilant: Note any changes in your horse’s behavior, such as increased scratching, rubbing, or restlessness. These might be early indicators of discomfort or underlying issues.
  • Monitor Seasonal Changes: Understand the natural shedding cycles of your horse and be on the lookout for anything that deviates from the norm.

Ensuring a Balanced Diet and Proper Care

  • Nutrient-Rich Feed: Hair health is deeply connected to overall health. Ensure your horse receives a balanced diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Supplements can be considered under veterinary advice if deficiencies are suspected.
  • Hydration: Ensure your horse has consistent access to fresh water. Proper hydration supports skin elasticity and overall health.
  • Shelter: Protecting your horse from extreme weather conditions—be it scorching sun or cold winds—can reduce the chances of environmental stress leading to hair loss.
  • Manage Stress: Just like humans, horses can experience hair loss due to stress. Ensure they have a comfortable living environment, regular companionship, and routine activities to keep them mentally stimulated and happy.

Prevention is always better than cure. With regular care, attention, and a dash of love, you can ensure that your horse’s coat remains lustrous and healthy, reflecting their overall well-being.

Unraveling Facial Hair Loss in Horses

Improper grooming can contribute to hair loss on a horse’s face. Leaving sweat on the skin can cause it to dry out, clog pores, and make halters rub more, potentially leading to hair loss. Bacterial issues may also arise from uncleaned skin.

Thus, it’s essential to clean a horse’s face before and after riding. A simple damp towel can be effective. Regular, gentle grooming can stimulate the horse’s natural protective oils and exfoliate the skin. Here are some other common reasons horses lose facial hair:

  1. Insects and Parasites: Biting insects, such as midges, mosquitoes, and ticks, can cause irritation and subsequent hair loss. Mites are a common culprit, especially if you notice the horse scratching its face often.
  2. Ringworm: This is a fungal infection that appears as round patches of hair loss, often accompanied by scaly skin.
  3. Sunburn: Horses, especially those with pink skin around their eyes and muzzle, can experience sunburn, which might lead to hair loss in those areas.
  4. Trauma or Rubbing: A horse might rub its face on fences, stalls, or other objects due to itching or irritation, leading to hair loss.
  5. Bacterial Infections: Bacterial folliculitis can lead to hair loss in patches.
  6. Allergic Reactions: Horses can have allergic reactions to various substances, such as certain plants, insect bites, or topical products, leading to skin irritation and hair loss.
  7. Tack or Equipment: Ill-fitting bridles, halters, or other equipment can cause friction and hair loss.
  8. Hormonal Issues: Some conditions can cause hair thinning, though this is generally more widespread than just the face.
  9. Systemic Diseases: Some systemic illnesses might manifest with hair loss as a symptom.
  10. Nutritional Deficiencies: Lack of certain nutrients can affect the quality and growth of hair.

If your horse is losing hair on its face, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Medical Conditions that Can Cause Equine Alopecia.

Pastern Dermatitis

Pastern dermatitis is most prevalent in horse breeds with feathers on their lower legs, like those on Friesians and Clydesdales. The thick hair traps moisture and bacteria, which causes irritation to the skin of the lower legs (underneath the feathers).

Your horses don’t have to have feathers to develop pastern dermatitis. Horses kept in pastures, paddocks, or stalls where their lower legs stay wet are also likely to create pastern dermatitis. If the ground is unsanitary, the risk is increased further.

It displays redness, crusting, and hair loss in the pattern region. It is caused by various reasons, including bacteria, fungi, and mites. The easiest way to prevent the condition is to keep the area dry; I recommend blow-drying the long hair surrounding your horse’s lower legs after washing.

Picture of a Friesian horse with long feathers, they are susceptible to pattern dermatitis and hair loss.

Skin Cancer

A sarcoid is a benign cancerous skin tumor that can cause hair loss. They typically present around the animal’s head and groin and in wounds. They can be mistaken for proud flesh. There are different types of sarcoid tumors.

Verrucoses are flat and resemble ringworm syndrome or scars; this is the least aggressive type of sarcoid. Other types are very aggressive, such as fibroblastic, and need attention quickly. Skin cancer tumors are not painful and are caused by bovine papilloma or BPV. It is believed, but not proven, that the disease is transmittable from horse to horse. 

An interesting fact is that papillon is the same virus linked to cervical cancer in women. Cancer tumors can be treated with vaccines, surgery, laser, or cryotherapy. Contact your vet if you suspect your horse has skin cancer. He will recommend the best path forward.

 Seasonal Alopecia

Like most other animals, horses shed and grow protective hair coats as the seasons change. For horses, their coat thickens in winter and begins to thin in the spring. However, some horses lose this natural balance and lose and grow hair outside of the regular schedule. This condition is called seasonal alopecia and is likely caused by a hormonal imbalance.

Horses with seasonal alopecia lose hair but typically grow it back without any adverse side effects. Just remember to keep your horse warm in the winter if it fails to develop a thick coat.

Particular grass or hay can cause hair loss.

The trace mineral selenium can cause hair loss, brittle hooves, and signs of lameness. It is an essential mineral in small doses but has severe consequences when too much is eaten. An acute overdose of selenium can kill a horse.

However, selenium toxicity is typically a chronic condition. Some hay and grass grown in soil with high selenium levels and eaten regularly by a horse can lead to chronic selenium toxicity and hair loss.

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Telogen and Anagen Effluvium: Non-Scarring Equine Hair Loss

Equine hair loss can certainly feel perplexing, especially when your horse’s hair begins to thin or disappear. In many instances, this unsettling change can be attributed to conditions known as telogen effluvium and anagen effluvium. These conditions, commonly known as non-scarring alopecia, cause a disruption in the natural hair growth cycle of your horse, leading to significant hair loss.

Telogen effluvium is characterized by an abrupt shift of hair follicles from the growth phase (anagen) to the resting phase (telogen). As a result, hair falls out more rapidly than it grows back, leading to a thinning or balding appearance. This condition is often triggered by systemic stress, such as severe illness, malnutrition, or a sudden change in diet.

On the other hand, anagen effluvium interrupts the active growth phase of hair follicles, typically due to exposure to toxins or as a side effect of certain medications. The hair loss, in this case, can be sudden and widespread, as actively growing hairs are abruptly forced out of their follicles.

The silver lining in these scenarios is that both conditions are non-scarring, meaning the hair follicles aren’t permanently damaged and can still produce new hairs. Therefore, recovery and regrowth are absolutely possible with the right care and treatment.

FAQ

What promotes hair growth in horses?

Healthy hair growth in horses is promoted by a balanced diet rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, regular exercise, good grooming practices, and avoiding stress. Additionally, providing the horse with a clean and comfortable environment and addressing any underlying medical conditions promotes healthy hair growth

Can you ride a horse if it’s lost patches of hair?

Deciding to ride your horse or not because it has hair loss depends on the patch’s location and its cause. If the area looks infected, moist, or raw, don’t ride the horse. For some horses with a mild case of hair loss that is dry, you could ride for brief periods and then bathe the horse afterward.