Whenever you pick out your horse’s hooves this winter, take a moment to check the skin on the back of his fetlocks. The wet/dry cycles common in milder climates at this time of year can lead to the development of scratches, a painful chapping of the skin just behind the fetlock.
Scratches occur when bacteria invade small cracks in the horse’s skin. Once infection takes hold, the cuts begin to ooze and crust over to form hard, painful scabs. A mild case of scratches can easily go unnoticed, but a severe case can make a horse lame.
The first rule of treating scratches is to leave the scabs in place. Attempts to remove them are very painful for the horse and may get you kicked. Instead, carefully trim the pastern hair and wash the area with an antiseptic shampoo. When you’re done, dry the area completely, using a hair dryer if necessary. Finally, apply an antibiotic ointment and a thick layer of an emollient cream, such as Desitin. Repeat this every other day and, eventually, the scabs will slide off on their own.
Continue the treatment until the skin is healed. If after two weeks of treatment you see no improvement, or the scratches worsen, call your veterinarian, who may initiate a more aggressive treatment.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, December 2014.