November 3, 2011

Avoiding Scratches

Scratches (aka. Mud Feaver / Greasy Heel) have been the topic of the month at our little barn. Scratches are a combination fungus/bacteria infection, not unlike thrush, generally located on the back of the pastern and they look like horizontal scratch lines. Sometimes they can be found on other parts of the lower leg as well. They can cause the horse a lot of pain, and can even cause lameness. It's something that's best avoided.

So, why is it a current topic? Scratches generally show up in the spring and fall due to mud. As such, there is one old retired mare on the property who just moved to our barn a month ago, and she has scratches. Now, comparatively to other barns I've boarded at, our barn doesn't have much mud and the grass pasture she's in doesn't seem to have any. I don't know if her owners come out and do anything with her, I assume not, since she's on retirement board. So, the un-groomed horse with long feathers on her feet on course post-hayed pasture grass has scratches. I kinda assume she came with them to be quite frank, but it wasn't noticed until she arrived and now she's getting daily treatments for it. It is possible that the combination of the course grass and morning dew could have caused the scratches as well.

For some reason I'm often asked if Rose gets scratches. She does have three white socks, so I can see why people assume that I must be an expert on the topic. Oddly, I have become very knowledgeable on the subject, but not because I've ever had to deal with scratches. I've become knowledgeable on the topic because everyone asks me about it all the time.

The reality behind it though, is that Rose has never had scratches. Nor has any horse that I've ever owned or leased. It was never a concern of mine in Oregon, because she lived in a gravel dry lot with no mud. This meant her feet got wet from the rain, but not muddy. Plus our part of Oregon was very humid, so it was damn near impossible for anything to ever dry out and crack. However, when we moved to Montana it was mud season, and she went directly into a gross paddock with a foot of mud. Regardless of the mud, it's very very dry here all year round. The muddy paddock only lasted one month however, before I couldn't take it any longer and her tiny Morgan mare paddock mate was beating the living tar out of her. At that time scratches became the topic of the month as well. Since I knew very little about it I did all the research on it that I could, talked to anyone that knew anything, and put a plan into action to avoid her getting scratches. That being said, I haven't a clue if she'd even be prone to getting them. I honestly think the white sock thing is a bit of a old wives tale. However, I generally prefer to avoid injuries/infections than having to deal with the healing process. So, without much more adieu, here is my scratches prevention technique, that has thus far worked for us.

My method to prevent scratches
Every time I ride (about 4x/week) during mud season I do the following: 

  1. Year round I keep feathers trimmed up. Not shaved, but trimmed so that there isn't' excess hair for mud to clump onto. Plus I think horses look neater with their feathers trimmed. Of course breeds like Frisians and Gypsy Vanner are excluded from that statement. Shaving the feet can cause horses to be more prone to scratches as there is less hair to protect the skin on the pastern from mud. Ironically, you'll need to shave your horses pasterns if you get scratches, but that falls under the topic of curing scratches, not preventing them.
  2. Pull horse from paddock.
  3. Take horse to wash rack and gently hose muddy feet off with warm water. Use only your finger tips to help remove mud. DO NOT brush mud off feet, ever. Brushing the pastern can cause tears in already dry skin that lays below the mud and infect the tissue with bacteria/fungus loveliness...causing scratches.
  4. Gently dry off the legs with a towel. Some people use a paper towel to avoid all possible cross contamination or re-contamination, but quite frankly I've never had an issue using a regular towel. I just wash my towels regularly and don't use them on any other horses, which is easy when you only have one horse. If you have multiple horses, taking a sharpie and writing their names on the towels is a good way to keep them separate. If a horse has scratches, make sure to use fresh towels every time...or resort to paper towels at that point.
  5. Allow leg to completely dry. This is usually when I ride. The leg must be very dry or you will end up trapping in bacteria/fungus during the next step.
  6. After the leg is clean and dry (dust it off if you rode), liberally apply diaper rash ointment to the back of the pastern and heel area. I buy aquaphor in a big tub. Desitin works great too, but it's more expensive and I've yet to find it in a tub.
  7. Return horse to paddock.
  8. Cross fingers and pray you get through the mud season with out scratches. Don't worry, your horse will make sure to get some other injury just to keep you on your toes!

Happy trails and swooshing tails!

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  1. Ha you have that last statement right for sure!!

    I didn't know that about brushing the pasterns . . . I do that all the time lol. Well only with dry dirt because I don't want mud in the brushes . . . I'll have to be careful about that now. :)

    Sounds like you're doing all of the right things. I bet it keeps her cute socks all pretty white too.

  2. My mare got scratches last year, not a white leg on her. I've heard since then that an imbalance or lack of copper and zinc will make horses more vulnerable to scratches. I've got her on a copper/zinc supplement now and so far no scratches despite the mud, mud and more mud that she's been living in.



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