By Ruthann Smith
© 2011, Ruthann Smith, All rights reserved.
Originally Published in Gypsy Horse Journal
Scratches is the condition of crud on heels. It may seem innocuous. However, I have seen those little scab-like bumps lead to legs blowing up to look like stove pipes, turn into systemic infections and even inspire a horse to break the face of a seasoned horseman. Yes, face: bones, nose and teeth. Scratches can get very painful and debilitating if left untreated. The good news is averting them all together is pretty straight forward. Treating them can be too, if you understand a few principles. All horses can have healthy heels with a proactive grooming routine. So, let's consider the causes, proven solutions and prevention.
Scratches are a fungus. After a bath, or standing on wet ground, damp heel skin is soft. Put the wet legs in a stall, and the bedding “scratches” the delicate skin. Mud, sand and footing can scratch damp heels as well. Fungus enters the micro-abrasions. Crud ensues.
Fungus loves dark, damp conditions. So, feathers are particularly hospitable. However, clipped socks are vulnerable too. Skin parched and burned by the elements is also very susceptible. So, no matter what, a horse owner's first and most important line of defense is to only put bone-dry legs into stalls or out. If legs are dry, they should not get scratches. Exceptions are if hooves are hot from soundness issues or medications are compromising the horse's immune system.
The best way to dry legs is to use a clean towel to rub them vigorously. This increases circulation and stimulates natural protective oils. Both promote healing. Fans do not. Microfiber drying cloths can absorb up to 30 times more water and ring out to absorb that much more again.
If you are tempted to use a fan or blow dryer, always towel vigorously first and use extreme caution with the cord. Good old elbow grease is your best bet.
Some people finish grooming with a dusting of cornstarch to help keep heels dry. I don't think it necessary if skin is healthy. Other remedies include powder, which may contain talc, a known carcinogen. So, even if you have seen it used, I would not. Others have been known to throw sawdust into feathers to help dry them, but that could promote scratches. I prefer to towel-dry legs. An enzymatic dry wash spray, pH balanced for horses, can help repel dirt.
Your second line of defense is to promote rather than deplete the horse's natural defenses. Groom a lot to stimulate oils, improving the skin's resilience. Keep horses clean. Dirt and sweat parch skin. Do not use shampoo that strips the coat's natural oils. Most whitening, medicated and daily shampoos do. Especially, since they typically contain salt (sodium chloride). Most conditioners just coat hair instead of moisturizing and nourishing it. Tea Tree Oil can be nature's best antiseptic and anti-fungal. However, it is a compound and can vary greatly in quality. To use the fine versus harsh variety, choose products that specify medical or pharmaceutical grade tea tree oil – preferably from Australia rather than China.
If you use the right shampoo, skin will be enriched and fortified. Bathing with a good all-in-one shampoo, such as Lucky Braids' will gently kill fungus and clean, as well as be whitening, brightening, detangling, and truly conditioning. Healthy coats resist skin disease and stay cleaner longer. So, you'll save time, energy and money with quality products.
If your horse already has crud on its heels, choose the treatment carefully. Conventional scratches medications typically slow healing. Greasy and oily ones attract the dirt that hosts the fungus, as well as the drying sun, while clogging pores. They compromise the skin, inhibiting regeneration. Antiseptic and anti-bacterial soaps do not kill fungus. They just deplete the skin. Some medicated shampoos may kill fungus, if specified, but dry the skin out as well.
While stripping skin can kill the fungus, it only hampers healing, leaving the skin defenseless and prone to scratches. Moreover, dry, dead skin seals in natural protective oils instead of allowing them to be released to replenish skin. Skin needs to be nourished and moisturized to repair itself.
Dirty brushes just push around impurities and spread skin disease. I recommend washing brushes weekly with an anti-fungal shampoo. Dry them bristle side down, so as not to rot the base.
The best strategy for combating scratches is to first prevent them by being in the habit of drying legs as well as using products that don't parch or suffocate the coat. If you need to treat the condition, come at the problem from every direction: gently kill the fungus, reduce inflammation, soothe, moisturize and fortify the skin. The remedy should absorb quickly, without attracting sun or dirt. Lucky Braids' Handy Salve treatment will do all this effectively to break the scratches cycle. Choosing the progressive All-In-One Shampoo can keep you out of the loop with fungus-free, healthy skin. Of course, keeping heels dry is pivotal.
As pervasive as scratches is, it is a management issue. Keeping heals dry requires some discipline, but the results will save you a lot of aggravation and ultimately reduce your vet bills. So, be mindful. It will save you time and money in the long run. Plus, instead of treating scratches, you can love your beautiful horses and even big fluffy feathers, if they have them.
Ruthann Smith has spent a lifetime studying sound horsemanship- both as a groom for top international horses and as a renowned braider. Quietly twisting manes atop a ladder, she watched and learned in some of the best stables in the world.
As her passion for great grooming grew, Ruthann became focused on researching, collecting and sharing the best practices of the world’s keenest horsemen. Ultimately, Ruthann used her vast experience to develop exceptional equine grooming products to help raise the bar of horsemanship.
The knowledge she dispenses and the products Ruthann developed solve age-old grooming issues. Making quality horse care easier, they have received the highest honors in the equine industry*. Her Lucky Braids for Top Turnout coat care and braiding products are the best, most versatile, cost-effective and easiest solutions available on the market today.
Now Ruthann offers her LOVE, LOVE Guarantee. If not totally thrilled with a product she developed, Ruthann will refund you in full, regardless of where you purchased it.
It’s her life’s mission to empower horses by educating, motivating and equipping their people to be true horsemen. You can access Ruthann’s tips at: The Grooming Resource on LuckyBraids.com, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and her Horsemanship Clinics.
*After testing 350 products, Lucky Braids All-In-One Horse Shampoo was named product of the year by Horse Journal, the “Consumer Reports” of the industry. They also named Lucky Braids Shampoo and Top Pick for greys and whites. Lucky Braids specialized braiding yarn also got stellar reviews.