Mud, glorious mud...
This has been one of the wettest winters on record, and there have been consequences for horses and their owners across the country. With almost constant access to these wet conditions, cases of ‘mud fever’ have been especially high across the UK.
What is 'Mud Fever' and what causes it?
Mud Fever is a collective name for a condition commonly associated with horses in regular exposure to muddy, damp conditions, and causes bacteria (that usually live on the skin without issue) to enter the damp softened skin on the lower limbs. This can cause an inflammatory reaction resulting in sores, scabs, cracks in the skin and can cause cellulitis and swelling and be exceptionally painful. This condition can also occur higher up the body but it is then known as ‘rain scald’.
Various things can cause mud fever, not just muddy conditions. For example, many people wash their horses’ legs daily when they bring them in from the field, but if the legs aren’t dried completely, this will increase the risk of the skin becoming at risk from mud fever. Horses with heavily feathered limbs seem to be prone to mud fever, perhaps because the dense hair hides the first signs of the condition, but equally it could be because horses with lots of feather means that their legs are washed more frequently but not thoroughly dried. Horses with white limbs also seem prone to this condition. Another potential cause is excessive sweating underneath rugs and boots during exercise, allowing the skin to become soft, and the bacteria to enter. If you are looking for boots and rugs that promote ventilation of limbs; keeping them cool even during strenuous exercise, have a look at this blog post about HUSK boots.
Wounds can weep and easily become infected, which can lead to horses becoming lame on one or more limbs. The condition can range from mild symptoms to severe infections, and veterinary attention may be necessary. If your horse has ever experienced mud fever, it is likely that it will reoccur unless you can protect against it.
As with most conditions, prevention is better than cure, but prevention is not always possible, especially when faced with the british weather and relentless wet conditions!
If you can prevent your horse standing in wet conditions, that’s a good place to start. If your horse can be stabled to allow time for the legs to dry out, that can be good, but if this isn’t possible, then having an area outdoors where horses can stand without being knee deep in mud is the next best thing. Whether this means fencing off muddy gateways and poached areas, frequently rotating paddocks, or putting an area of hardcore down, your horses’ legs and feet need to be out of mud if possible. You can also buy ‘turnout boots’ which can help keep the rain and muddy conditions off the legs, but these boots aren’t designed to be worn 24/7. If your horse is turned out, you can apply a barrier cream to dry legs to try and prevent other moisture from entering the skin.
If you think your horse has mud fever, the sooner you start treating it and dealing with the management side of things, the better. This condition can quickly escalate if it isn’t dealt with.
If your horse develops mud fever, you will need to begin treatment straight away. The legs should be washed and cleaned with an antibacterial wash, and then be dried completely afterwards. The hair in the affected areas needs to be clipped or trimmed so that the areas can be managed and observed closely.
This condition can be very painful, and as a horse trainer, I was recently asked to assist with a horse who needed his legs clipping to enable his owner to treat the mud fever on his front legs. When dealing with horses that are encountering pain, it’s a tricky situation to try and persuade them to be tolerant, but with patience and good timing, I was able to help this horse by clipping the hair from his knees to his fetlock, enabling his human to get access to the skin and begin treatment. In severe cases, veterinary sedation might be required to allow the limb to be clipped and cleaned.
Depending on the severity of the condition, there are various products that can help treat mild symptoms, but for bad cases where infection is present, veterinary attention may be advisable as anti-inflammatories and targeted medicated creams may be necessary.
For mild cases, I personally use ‘HoneyHeel’ by RedHorse Products. This is a fantastic cream, combining honey, aloe vera and zinc oxide to not only help soothe the wound and promote healing, but it is also an effective barrier cream.
It may take several weeks of treatment to tackle mud fever, and once it has cleared up, it can quickly return… so check your horses limbs daily and do what you can to prevent it.