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Sunscreen For Horses

16 August 2011 No Comment

Sunscreen For Horses
By: Jessica Jahiel

Q: What type of sunscreen should be used on a horse? Can I use a human sunscreen product? I should probably rephrase that question because I have been using products meant for humans with 30+ or 50 SPF on sun sensitive areas for our few horses. We have a 16-year-old white appaloosa with light brown spots who gets sunburn on his nose, lips, the tips of his ears, around his eyes and now on the dock of his tail where his hair is thin and the skin is exposed to sunlight. He has what I’d call ‘freckles’ on the flesh under his hair. Except for a few well defined equine features, he reminds me of some sun sensitive, light-pigmented blonde-haired or red-haired bipedal friends of mine. I’ve never put sunscreen around his eyes. It seems to work on the nose, tips of the ears and on the dock of the tail. But it appears to be effective for only a few hours and then the skin gets red. We recently bought a Crusader fly mask with ear and nose pieces which I really like. He is only out in the early a.m. or late p.m., never out in the peak sun hours of midday. He had a squamous cell carcinoma removed four months ago by our veterinarian. I’m sorry I don’t know the official body part name for the gelding’s skin which houses his private part, but that is where the lesion was removed. I don’t mean to be funny, but the sun certainly doesn’t shine there. Therefore, I am concerned about the areas which are exposed to the direct rays of the sun. I even bought a flyspray with sunscreen last week. We also have a morgan-QH bay gelding who has had a two inch halter rub running horizontally across his blaze since we bought him. He gets red from sun exposure on this one spot. In all of the equine-related catalogues with healthcare products, I have yet to find a sunscreen or sunblock product for horses. There must not be very many if there are any. In your opinion, is it safe to use human sunscreen or sunblock products on horses? What precautions would you observe?

Respectfully yours,

Hi Renee! The short answer is that any sunscreen product you would use on yourself, particularly around your eyes, is a product you can use on your horse.

The long answer is that horses do get sunburned, and that light-colored horses and horses with white markings (anywhere the skin is pink under the hair coat) can sometimes get quite badly sunburned, especially on the muzzle and around the eyes. Dark-coated, dark-skinned horses usually experience a certain amount of bleaching – a black coat will go reddish, for example – but nothing actually dangerous.

Sunburn can be serious, though, and there are some diseases, medications, and pasture plants that can make horses extremely photosensitive. A pink-skinned horse in strong sun is likely to suffer from sunburn; if that horse were being treated with tetracylines, it could suffer from much more severe sunburn. If it found some alsike clover in a corner of the pasture and ate that, it could develop even more sun sensitivity – and might also sustain liver damage. There is a correlation between sunburn and liver damage – some systemic diseases involving the liver will make horses very photosensitive. If your horse shows signs of severe sunburn, your veterinarian will probably want to have the horse’s blood tested for liver disease.

Although the best solution, as with humans, is to limit the skin’s exposure to direct sunlight, sometimes it’s necessary to use sun protection or sunblock products to keep horses from burning and peeling in sensitive areas.

Some horse-owners use the same products on their light-skinned horses that they use on their small children. The protection provided by a sunblock such as zinc oxide is just as helpful for horses as it is for humans. The key is to keep it on the horse – grazing in tall grass can remove a lot of product from the equine face, and even short grass can remove a great deal from the horse’s muzzle.

You may want to look for one of the brightly-colored products that are popular at the beach! There was a time when using zinc oxide to protect one’s nose meant having a white nose – nowadays, you can find blue, purple, green, or pink zinc oxide products! The idea behind the colors was that children (and some adults) who were unwilling to have white noses or white streaks across their faces could enjoy, and therefore would actually USE, products that let them smear colors across their faces. I doubt that horses care about the colors we smear across their faces, but those colors can be a great convenience to us – if your light-colored horse is wearing purple sunblock, for example, you will quickly be able to tell, even from a distance, whether the sunblock has worn off and needs to be reapplied around its eyes and to its muzzle and other sensitive pink-skinned areas.

Many of today’s grooming products contain sunscreens – shampoos, coat conditioners, even some flysprays. Be sure to note how much protection each product provides – there is a big difference between 8 SPF or 15 SPF in some grooming products, and the 30 SPF provided by (for example) Absorbine Ultra-Screen.

Get your veterinarian involved if you have any reason to suspect that your horse may be ill or reacting to medication or to a some plant in its forage. Get your veterinarian involved if your horse is suddenly showing signs of sunburn when it has never before reacted to even strong sun with anything but a slightly pink nose.

Aside from that, just use your good sense – apply sunscreen when and where you think the horse is likely to need protection, and reapply it as needed.

If you ride, reapply the sunscreen after the ride, especially to those areas where it may have been rubbed off by the bridle.

Your appaloosa will probably be much more comfortable if you apply sunscreen to his lips and muzzle, ear tips, dock, sheath, and around his eyes. The fly mask is a good idea – a good flymask will reduce the horse’s exposure to ultraviolet light. Some horses need a sunscreen-soaked flysheet, or a light cotton sheet. If it is too hot for that, or if the horse isn’t under supervision and you don’t want him turned out wearing a sheet, you may even want to keep him in a well-ventilated shed or stall for a few hours before and after noon each day.

It sounds to me as though you are taking wonderful care of your horse – just keep on keeping on!


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