How to Treat Scratches in Horses

Scratches on horses tend to be classified into three categories: mild, moderate, or severe. If the scratches are severe, they should be treated by a veterinarian. It may be a good idea to have mild or moderate scratches looked at professionally as well, especially if the horse isn’t prone to scratches.

Knowing how to treat scratches begins with maintaining a healthy environment for the horse. Most scratches tend to occur when the horse is in an environment that is excessively dirty or wet. Whether it’s a muddy paddock or a stall that hasn’t been mucked out, the end result is that the environmental conditions can cause the skin of the horse to split, scab over, bleed, and potentially leave scars.

Horses with feathering are even more prone to scratches because their feathers prevent the pastern from being able to dry out. Focus on the environment and many of the painful scratches a horse might develop will never appear.

In most cases, it also helps to trim the hair from around the affected area before attempting a treatment regimen. This includes trimming the feathers if applicable. Don’t worry – the hair will eventually grow back. It is better to remove the hair that could be retaining moisture and affecting the overall health of the horse than to maintain the visual aesthetics of the horse while treating scratches. 

What Are Scratches in Horses?

Scratches are a common skin condition that horses tend to pick up in wet, moist environments. It occurs on their pastern when the skin quality begins to degrade. When too much degradation occurs, the skin will begin to crack – much like how people can have a heel crack over time when a callus becomes too dry.

Once the skin cracks, the horse no longer has an effective barrier against bacteria, fungi, and other contaminants in their environment that may affect their health. Scratches often lead to pain and irritation, which can then lead to behavioral changes if the condition is left untreated.

This should not be confused with other scratch-like injuries a horse can pick up over the course of the day. Although the treatment for similar injuries is often the same, the purpose of this content is to treat pastern dermatitis in its various forms.

How to Treat Mild Scratches in Horses

When you first notice the mild scratches that a horse has developed, then the first step is to gently wash the area with a sheath cleaner. Using an anti-microbial cleaner can help to prevent or reduce mild inflammation or infections that may be in the area. Some horses can be sensitive to these cleaners, so you may need to run a 24-hour spot test on the horse before cleaning out their scratches.

Most scratches are not noticed on a horse until they have scabbed over. You will likely find a few “crusty” bumps from the knee down when mild scratches are present. When using the sheath cleaner, you will notice that the bumps will begin to soften and loosen when the cleaner is allowed to remain on the horse for a few minutes.

Do not pull off the scabs. They may come off when you rinse the cleaner off of the horse. If you pull at a scab, you may cause more pain and bleeding. If there is an infection, pulling off a scab will drive it deeper into the horse and potentially cause a serious health issue.

Once you’ve rinsed the area thoroughly, you will need to dry out the area as much as possible. If your horse doesn’t mind the noise and heat, consider using a blow dryer. Otherwise clean, dry terrycloth towels will get the job done.

You may also wish to wrap the affected area overnight, especially if there is swelling around the mild scratches. This will help to keep the scratches clean and dry so healing can begin. You may also wish to use an emollient to help soothe the irritated skin around the scratches that could be bothering the horse. Wrapping with a Telfa pad will generally help to calm the horse.

Most cases of mild scratching will begin to clear within a few days. If they do not, then you may need to treat the scratches as a moderate case instead.

How to Treat Moderate Scratches in Horses

The process of treating moderate scratches in horses is generally the same as it is with mild scratches, but you must take a more aggressive approach. Instead of cleaning out the scratches twice per day, you may need to do it 4-6 times per day.

You may also need to apply an antibiotic cream or an antifungal cream to the scratches, especially if you are starting to see some swelling in the area. If there is cracking in the skin that is due to the swelling, then you’ll need to move to the treatment for severe scratches. 

How to Treat Severe Scratches in Horses

If your horse has scratches that look extremely swollen and are hot to the touch, then you’ve got a severe case on your hands. Those are indications that an infection is present. You may also see that the scratches are red with open cracks in the skin that are exposing a red interior to the scratch. 

These are indications that there are bacteria inside the wound. There may also be a fungal infection present. It’s not uncommon to have a dual infection involved once the scratches reach this level.

Scratches that are this severe require you to restrict the movement of the horse. You will also need to avoid wrapping the infected area. This is because anything that encourages better blood circulation can actually worsen the condition because it will cause the infection to spread.

If the infection can be identified as a bacterial infection, then a topical antibiotic cream can help to bring some relief to the scratches. You’ll need a wound cream, such as Bacitracin, and then gently rub it into the scratches and any other swollen areas along the leg.

Not every antibiotic cream will be effective. You may need to use an anti-fungal cream with an antibiotic cream, applying every 2-4 hours for best results – so you would apply the antibacterial cream at 8am, the anti-fungal cream at 10am, and then the antibiotic cream again at 12pm. 

Each treatment option should begin producing noticeable results in 72 hours or less. If it does not, then you may need to switch to a different option. The longer the scratches are not treated successfully, then the more pain your horse will be in and the longer it will take to heal.

This is why bringing in the veterinarian when severe scratches are first discovered is usually the best thing to do.

Proactive Treatments You Can Take to Heal Scratches

Horses that are suffering from scratches, no matter how mild or severe they may be, must be kept in an environment that is clean and dry. This means they’ll need to be housed in a well-maintained stall until the healing process has been completed. They should not be turned out into a wet pasture.

Make sure that you check the scratches on a regular basis so you can catch the bothersome signs and symptoms of an infection right away. You might even consider using antimicrobial washes and antibiotic creams on the scratches when they are first found as a preventative measure.

Before a horse goes into a stall, make sure that their legs are thoroughly dry. This applies even if there have been no scratches found.

In late Autumn and early Spring, horses should remain in their stalls until the heat of the day causes the pasture to dry out. Heaving morning dew or frost on the ground can create the wetness around the legs that is necessary for the scratches to appear.

When using boots or wraps, make sure that there are no scratches or moisture present. Boots and wraps will retain moisture around an affected area, which can cause a needless infection over time.

It is also a good idea to keep all of your grooming equipment and boots separate for a horse that is suffering from scratches. Although the likelihood of spreading an infection from horse to horse with these items is low, it is still a possibility.

Are You Ready to Treat Scratches in Horses?

Even with your best preventative measures, some horses just seem to get scratches more than others. You may not be able to stop every instance, but you can take an appropriate action to treat the scratches based on their severity.

Follow the steps listed here. Get your washes and creams that you may need. Apply them frequently and remember to inspect the legs of the horse on a regular basis for injuries and swelling. When you can move quickly and proactive, then the horse can heal faster, and that makes everyone a whole lot more comfortable at the end of the day.