You've tried everything to treat your horse's case of scratches. But he's still sore--and you're frustrated. A friend mentions a home remedy she's used with success, and you're tempted. It can't hurt, right?
It may not. It may even bring your horse relief. But it could also make the symptoms worse and create a whole new set of problems. We'll take a look at 10 horse care situations where homemade remedies were used, and Horse & Rider contributing editor and veterinarian Karen Hayes will explain why the remedy might be effective (or not) and offer some options and advice for treatment. We'll also look at remedies that have been used for generations ("Tried and True," below), and offer some words of warning for common horse treatments ("Proceed with Caution," below). And, just for a glimpse at how far horse care has come, we'll dust off some of the old (and outrageous) remedies horsemen cooked up as cures ("Don't Try This at Home," below).
As always, check with your vet for diagnosis and treatment, and ask her before trying any homemade remedy.
Problem: Sarah's 16-year-old Quarter Horse, Wisk, isn't breaking a sweat, even in the dead heat of summer. The vet says he has anhidrosis, a condition characterized by a horse's inability to sweat in response to exercise or increased body temperature. Unable to cool himself, he's not only uncomfortable but his health is compromised.
Reader Remedy: A friend suggests pouring a pint of Guinness beer in his grain ration once a day during the summer. It's an old racetrack remedy she says helps him pop a sweat.
Vet's View: It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Although there's no scientifically proven treatment for anhidrosis, there are anecdotal accounts of up to 80 percent "cure" when affected horses are given supplemental vitamin C and one or more of the B-vitamins. While the more refined, filtered beers tend to have less of these vitamins, the more robust, stout beers such as Guinness contain decent levels of these and other nutrients. However, equivalent "cures" have been reported when anhidrotic horses are simply protected from hot/humid conditions for at least a month, and are either given the month off from exercise or worked only at night during the break. So, should you give your horse a cold one or a cool break from the heat and humidity? I'd start with the break. And, if he'll drink the beer, I suppose it can't hurt... as long as it's in moderation.
Problem: A few hours after Lynn brought her Paint gelding, Ty, in from the rain, she noticed his hair began to stand up in a pattern in one area, and the area felt warm. He also seemed sensitive to touch. The next day, sensitive scabs appeared and Lynn realized he has rain rot--a skin condition caused by Dermatophilus spp., bacteria commonly present on a horse's hair coat. Rain, followed by humid conditions, enables the organism to multiply, which irritates the hair follicles and skin of afflicted horses.
Reader Remedy: Her trainer suggests a homemade cure of equal parts Listerine and baby oil. Lynn rubs the concoction onto the affected areas and it seems to help.
Vet's View: In my opinion, that recipe is on the right track, but it could use a tweak. Listerine contains alcohol, which can irritate your horse's skin. The organism that causes rain rot is taking advantage of the fact that waterlogged skin is immune-compromised, and irritating that skin can make it even more vulnerable to infection. For my clients, I've recommended a milder concoction that admittedly makes a mess, but it works. Mix a 16-ounce bottle of mineral oil (baby oil is OK), a 16-ounce bottle of 3 percent USP hydrogen peroxide, and a half-ounce bottle of tincture of iodine in a bucket. Sponge it on the affected areas and let it set overnight. This will soften and lift the scabs, soothe and lubricate the skin, and kill the bug. The next day, shampoo your horse with a mild shampoo and let the area air-dry, preferably in the sun. NOTE: Don't put this concoction in a sealed container. It'll bubble up and explode.
Problem: Several weeks of spring thaw and rainy weather makes a muddy mess at the barn, and Jeri's 8-year-old Morgan, Bender, seems to actually like standing up to his fetlocks in the muddiest spot in the pasture. When she brings him in to clean him up, she notices he's a little sore and has scabby, cracked areas near his heels. Her vet diagnoses scratches (AKA greasy heel, cracked heel, or foot rot), an equine bacterial infection.
Reader Remedy: Another rider at the barn tells Jeri about a remedy that worked on her horse--and one that was only as far as the grocery store: sauerkraut. She applies the deli concoction onto the affected area, wraps it with plastic wrap, and leaves it on overnight. The next day she washes the leg, dries it thoroughly, and repeats for several days.
Vet'sView: I'd rather see the sauerkraut on a Reuben sandwich, but I can understand why this weird treatment might work: The high vinegar content in sauerkraut helps the skin attain a lower pH (more acidic), which is generally a healthier state for skin. A slightly acidic environment is also inhospitable for various fungal organisms. Still, it's highly unlikely that a true case of scratches would respond quickly to this treatment. Scratches is known to be a stubborn, chronic condition that is tough to beat with any therapy. I'd focus my energy on getting the horse on high, dry ground so his skin isn't forced to defend itself while waterlogged and filthy.
Lameness Caused by Splints
Problem: Mary's 3-year-old Thoroughbred, Clockwork, has been diagnosed with splints, an injury that occurs when a horse damages the connection between the splint bone and the cannon bone. He seems to be lame, and she's wondering what she can do when it makes him sore. A friend who's been around horses for years tells her about an old-time remedy. She figures she'll try it.
Reader Remedy: Mix 1-gallon apple cider vinegar, one jar of alum (for pickling), and one small bottle of oil of wintergreen. Shake well, and apply liberally to the swelling and surrounding areas. Apply a standing bandage.
Vet's View: Because the pain and swelling of a simple splint tend to be intermittent and resolve themselves over time, it probably doesn't matter what (if anything) you put on the splint--it'll "work!"
Problem: A plague of nasty flies are driving Julie and her horses crazy. She doesn't think her fly spray is working--or it's wearing off too quickly.
Reader Remedy: Julie finds a recipe online for homemade fly spray and decides to give it a try. The recipe mixes apple cider vinegar, dish detergent, salad oil, and citronella oil. But the reaction her horses have is less than favorable--the mixture seems to irritate the horses more than the flies.
Vet's View: It's not hard to figure out why this concoction didn't result in a happy ending. The apple cider vinegar might be helpful because it's acidic, and skin is generally happier (and better able to defend itself ) when it's slightly acidic. However, if you've ever washed any of your own body parts with dish detergent, and left it on without rinsing it off, you know how irritating that can be. Salad oil is fly food, so that's not a particularly good thing to add if you're trying to discourage the pests. And although there are some documented insect-repellent properties of citronella essential oil, if there's more than a drop or two of the oil in the concoction, it can be extremely irritating. And, if Julie used the kind of citronella oil sold for backyard torches, that stuff is pretty unrefined and even more likely to be irritating.
Problem: Melinda's yearling Appaloosa filly, Mars, jumped into the side of a gate and ended up with a nasty cut along her cannon bone. Instead of healing cleanly, it's filling with pink, fleshy tissue called "proud flesh."
Reader Remedy: Melinda knows of two remedies for proud flesh: One is simply applying the human remedy, Preparation H; the other is applying a handful of dry, granulated white sugar. She's wondering if both--or either--will help.
Vet's View: There are three things you need to keep proud flesh from getting out of hand. One is cleanliness--the wound must be kept scrupulously clean. The second is lack of irritation--anything that irritates proud flesh tissue stimulates it to grow. The third requirement is light pressure, about the same amount of pressure applied by normal skin. The best home remedy for cleaning a wound is to gently irrigate it with a homemade saline solution of 1 teaspoon table salt dissolved in 1 cup of distilled water. Once it's clean, Preparation H can be helpful. It contains mineral oil, petrolatum, and shark liver oil (all of which soothe and protect), and phenylephrine (which constricts superficial blood vessels and may slow the growth of the proud flesh). Preparation H is to be applied to a wound that's already filled in with granulation tissue (which is what proud flesh is made of ), not to a fresh wound. Otherwise, petrolatum and mineral oil could seep down into the crevices in the open wound and interfere with healing. Although a handful of sugar will kill bacteria, it's irritating to the tissues, so I wouldn't recommend it. Depending on the wound I'm treating, after cleaning and soothing it, I might apply a bandage with just enough pressure to keep the proud flesh from growing and keep the wound bandaged (replacing it regularly) until skin grows over.
Problem: Kim has a 5-year-old grade gelding named Bear with a vertical crack running up the front of his front hoof. She's been trying to let the crack grow out, but it just inches up, and trimming isn't taking care of it. She doesn't show, and Bear doesn't wear shoes, but her farrier wants to put shoes on him to help take care of the crack.
Reader Remedy: In hopes of not having to shoe Bear, Kim heads to the hardware store and picks up some Gorilla Glue. The crack is "open" but not deep enough to compromise any sensitive material. She fills it with glue. The next day, the crack is tightly closed.
Vet's View: This could work, but there's a potential problem if there's any contamination in the crack. The glue will seal it in, and could cause a destructive infection. I think Kim should consult her veterinarian before taking this bull by the horns.
Problem: Bill's 9-year-old Arabian, Jewel, colics mildly--but often. He wants to try adding a supplement to her diet in hopes of cutting down on her colic frequency.
Reader Remedy: With his vet's approval, he feeds her 1/2 cup of aloe vera juice with her regular feed, morning and evening.
Vet's View: Most colic home remedies worry me because the number one thing you have to do before you treat recurrent colic is to try and figure out why it's happening and address that. Although aloe vera juice is reputed to soothe upset human tummies, horses that colic over and over usually have an underlying problem that's not going to go away with aloe vera treatment
TRIED AND TRUE
Walk into just about any barn, and you're likely to find these longtime, well-respected remedies still being used:
114 Years Old: Absorbine Liniment
In 1892, former piano salesman Wilbur Fenelon Young developed a formula of herbs and essential oils that helped reduce a horse's discomfort and swelling without blistering. He and his wife, Mary Ida, created Absorbine Veterinary Liniment in a tub in their farmhouse kitchen.
Uses: Mild analgesic for sore muscles, antiseptic for minor cuts, antifungal body wash. Helps prevent hoof and sole infections.
107 Years Old: Bag Balm
In 1899 John L. Norris bought the formula for Bag Balm from its original creator in the little town of Wells River, Vt. The salve was created to soften cow udders. It soon found its way into the horseman's tool kit (and eventually made its way to human medicine cabinets; reportedly, it's a favorite of Shania Twain's.)
Uses: Bag balm is a compound of petrolatum, lanolin, and a small amount of antiseptic. It's a good emollient and protectant, but not for use on open wounds.
100 Years Old: Corona Ointment
Developed in 1906 outside Kenton, Ohio, dairy farmers used Corona to protect their cows' skin from the effects of the cold.
Uses: As the ointment grew in popularity, more people began using the medicine to treat saddle sores and hoof problems--and eventually, chapped and cracked hands.
68 Years Old: Shapley's M-T-G
In 1938, a barber named Henry E. Shapley in Waterloo, Iowa formulated a product for dandruff and psoriasis. Like a typical horse lover, his formula soon made its way to the barn--as Shapley's Original M-T-G (Mane-Tail-Groom).
Uses: A leave-in conditioner/detangler; also a dermatitis treatment for a variety of skin problems including: fungus, rain rot, girth itch, scratches, dandruff, and tail rubbing. Always test a small area before applying it liberally over your horse's coat.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Using the right remedy, at the right time, in the right way is critical. These treatments can be effective--or they can make things worse. Make sure you know how to use them correctly before you try them on your horse.
Used for: Reducing swelling.
Caution: Should never be applied to fresh wounds or areas
that may develop a bruise or hematoma. While a wound is still fresh (and possibly weeping blood), DMSO can exacerbate the bleeding and result in expansion of the wound, turning a small bruise into an enormous hematoma. Also, because DMSO is rapidly absorbed through the skin and can "carry' certain compounds with it, be very careful what you mix with DMSO, and only apply it to skin that has been cleaned of all liniments, blisters, etc., which can contain ingredients that would be toxic if taken internally.
Used for: Thrush
Caution: Some people put it on flesh wounds. Don't! It's toxic and irritating and will kill delicate tissues.
Cold Water for Hosing Off Wounds
Used for: Cleansing wounds and reducing swelling.
Caution: A water stream that's too harsh can damage already traumatized tissues. And, if irrigated too long, the tissues can become waterlogged, which only worsens the prognosis for healing. If a wound can't be made visibly clean within 10 minutes of gentle irrigation, stop and ask your veterinarian for help.
Peroxide on Wounds
Used for: Cleaning and oxygenating a wound.
Caution: It's too irritating for some tissues and can actually burn even the tougher tissues if used repeatedly. And, if a wound exposes channels that lead into deeper tissues, peroxide's bubbles can force surface contaminants down into those deeper areas, turning a superficial wound into a deep abscess. Ask your veterinarian if peroxide is a good choice for a particular wound.
Duct Tape as the Outer Bandage for Leg Wounds
Used for: Holding a bandage in place.
Caution: Duct tape has absolutely no stretch to it and can apply too much pressure to delicate leg structures, possibly causing damage such as a bowed tendon.
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
Some of the bizarre and downright senseless remedies of old may make you laugh, shake your head, or feel empathy for the horses who lived through (or didn't) these concoctions:
- For founder: Hold a saucer of turpentine over the horse's navel area. He'll "suck it up" and the founder will be cured with 24 hours.
- For laminitis: Bleed horse one gallon, then give raw linseed oil and rub the forelegs.
- For heaves: Pour 1 teaspoonful of oil tar on the tongue, followed by grain, which will "help carry the tar to the stomach."
- For tapeworms: Turpentine mixed with egg yolks and camphor.
- For strangles: Mix hops and carbolic acid in boiling water. Have horse inhale steam for 20 minutes. Feed a diet of mash and boiled vegetables.
- For colic: Force-feed a hornet's nest.
This article first appeared in the January 2006 issue of Horse & Rider. For great info on tried-and-true remedies for ailments, your horse is bound to face soon or later, see "Vets' Best Fixes for 5 Common Maladies" in our March 2010 issue. To order a copy of either of these issues or other back issues, call 877-717-8928.