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Preventing Sunburn in Horses

I recently purchased a horse with a large white blaze.  He is out on pasture all day and is suffering from sunburn on his nose.  I have tried to use the face masks that have a nose cover, but he plays face games with the other horses all day and his mask frequently gets ripped off and destroyed.  I was hoping my horse would get a “tan” and stop burning, but his skin is as pink as ever.  What can I do? HW, Illinois

Dear HW, 

Thanks for this question because it made me go to the Skin Cancer Foundation website and read up about skin, the sun, and how to protect ourselves from it, an area all of us need to stay current on.  I think their three-pronged approach to sun protection can be applied equally well to horses, which is:

  1. Use sunscreen
  2. Seek the shade
  3. Cover up with clothing 

Use sunscreen
While there are sunscreen products specifically made for horses–such as Quic Shade and Quic Screen–it appears that sunscreen products made for humans are just as safe to use on our equine companions.  Sunscreens come in two categories:  1) organic absorbers/filters and 2) inorganic physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide).  You’ll probably have the most luck not only with a product that includes a chemical from each category but also more than one chemical from the organic category, since it’s hard to find one chemical that blocks UVA1, UVA2 and UVB.  According to the FDA, the agency that regulates sunscreens, products with an SPF 15 or higher are acceptable.  That’s because SPF 15 filters out 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters out 97%, and SPF 50 filters out 98%.  So there’s not a lot more protection at the higher ratings.

Remember the rules about applying sunscreen? Apply ½ hour before sun exposure and reapply every two hours.  While that schedule might be difficult for most horse owners, definitely reapply after exercise, rain, a bath or grooming.  If your horse is grazing, then he’s probably rubbing off much of the sunscreen in the grass.  You could try using a brightly colored sunscreen or sunblock so you can see when this happens.  Plus it will keep your neighbors guessing what color your horse will be sporting each day!

Seek the shade
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends avoiding exposure to the sun between 10am and 4pm.  Is this something you could do with your horse?  Many people who are trying to prevent their black horses from bleaching keep them in well-ventilated stalls during the day and only turn them out at night.  At the very minimum, provide an optional break from the sun’s rays in the form an inexpensive horse shade, a more solid lean-to, or even trees.

Cover up with clothing
A broad-brimmed straw hat and sunglasses is probably out of the question for your horse, and you mention you’ve already tried the long fly masks that cover the muzzle.  I assume you’ve tried every brand that makes one?  As I’m sure you know, some fly masks stay on better than others, and it has as much to do with the size and shape of a horse’s head as it does with the antics of the rest of the herd.  Here’s a crazy idea:  have you thought about putting a grazing muzzle on him (or perhaps the worst of the horses that removes his fly mask)?  Although restricting a horse’s pasture intake may lead to a whole new set of problems, with either scenario you may be helping your horse.  That is, the grazing muzzle itself may protect him from the sun but if you’d prefer him not be the one wearing it, putting on the “bad boy” in your herd may protect yours from having his fly mask ripped off.  Just an idea!

I want to share one more thing with you that I learned from the Skin Cancer Foundation website.  Did you know the correct order of application in humans is moisturizer, then sunscreen, then makeup?  I think I’ve been doing this wrong all these years!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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11 comments on “Preventing Sunburn in Horses
  1. Bev says:

    I have a horse with this problem also. the only thing I have found that helps much is zinc oxide. The problem is you have to keep putting it on as it tends to melt off. It does soothe the soreness and helps the sunburn to heal. I wish there was a permanent cure besides keeping them out of the sun all the time.

  2. Liv says:

    This is a new product specifically for sunburn prevention on horses, and it works great!

  3. Sue Gray says:

    We have designed shades for horses that are actually 90% uv proof, unlike the fly extension veils our nose shade flares away from the horses face and protects with cover the entire muzzle, mouth, lips and nostrils! Our shades stay on great while allowing your horse to graze and drink easily. We have eye shades, nose shades, full face shades and trail rider shades, in sizes from draft to mini. It is a fantastic solution to messy sunscreens and so easy to use. Do yourself a favor and visit the web-site you will be glad you did. Just wanting to help the horse owner help his/her horse. Feel free to call 770-990-8487

  4. Amber says:

    I also have a horse with a large pink nose and i started him on SOURCE (seaweed supplement) in spring and i have not seen a burn yet! I wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t my horse. He usually burns terribly, but for some reason when he is on Source, he doesn’t burn. And this is in the south where we have weeks of over 100 with full sun. He has 24/7 turnout. Hope this helps 🙂

  5. Sue Gray says:

    Have you tried our shades, they do stay on great and are 90% UV proof, they also cover the entire muzzle without being bothersome and resting on the nose. We are constantly improving our shades from customer feedback. They are working! Thank you

    • deborah cole says:

      Unfortunately these shades ( I bought several of them) frayed from the constant grazing and the binding around the edges came off and they frayed even more. Horses will not leave them on.Either they take them off daily ( three horses did this) or have another horse take them off for them!! ( one did this). I ended up spending even more money to buy break-a-way halters to use w/them to try to keep them on. ( this worked for 2 of them.) i can see where they would work if accepted and left on. Maybe for cold bloods not my Arabs, ASB and Hackneys.

  6. Karen says:

    Unfortunately I had the same problem with the nose shade. Frayed badly, then he learned how to flip/fold the end up because he hated it. Adjusting it never helped. It was on under a fly mask and stayed on, its just that flipped up it didn’t cover. He was alone with electric wire too.

  7. Angee Chavez says:

    Thanks so much for the great ideas & ways to prevent my horse from sun burning!!!

  8. Elzbeth says:

    We have two Peruvian Pasos (mother and daughter) mares with this condition. 3 years ago the daughter developed blisters on her back from her shoulders to her tail. We had no idea why. Her mother was smart enough to find shade and stay in it but the daughter didn’t. We got a salve from the vet and my sister applied it and eventually the blisters healed. Now she has white spots where the blisters were. I used to sun bathe when I was younger and her blisters looked like burn blisters so I got her a light (bed sheet fabric) weight blanket with UV protection and put it on her during the day. I watch the UV level with my Weather App and take it off when the UV is low. Success. Last year mother and daughter had matching sheets and no sun burn. Yay!!! I don’t think people think that horses skin can burn because of the fur but they do. Our third horse is a mixed Peruvian Paso and Tennesee Walker with very thick fur so she hasn’t burned. We have over hangs in each pasture but they don’t use them. So, thank you for your website. I will refer my sister to it.

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