Girth Itch in Horses
Ah, yeah, another skin funk that horses can get. Super. Girth itch is often associated with girth galls – those sores around the elbow and girth area. Both can interfere with your horse’s tack and make riding darn near impossible.
What is girth itch?
- Technically speaking, girth itch is a fungal skin infection. A dermatophytosis, to be exact, much like ringworm. But, like all things horse, there can be a bacterial element, too.
- And here’s where things get a bit cloudy – a lot is happening in the elbow area – and they all interact together. There is tack, sweat, hair, folds of skin, and all of the microscopic critters that live on horses.
- When there is friction, there is always the possibility of hot spots and blisters – that same process that puts blisters on our heels in new shoes. In the elbow area, you may see broken hair or a patch shorter than the surrounding areas. There may be a little swelling involved, too, or you could see pink skin through the broken hairs.
- If the irritation is allowed to continue, layers of skin will slough off. Maybe nothing opens up, but perhaps it does. Some horses take a while to develop a sore; others happen in the blink of an eye.
- That sore creates tiny openings for more fungus and bacteria to set up shop. If the skin happens to open and become a full-fledged sore, engraved invitations go out, and you can expect an onslaught of bacterial and microscopic invaders. Healing can take a long time!
- A quick note about girth itch – it’s contagious to other horses. Sharing girths, grooming brushes, curry combs, saddle pads, girth covers (you get the idea) carry the fungus from one horse to another.
- There are saddle-cleaning options that contain fungicides to consider.
Signs your horse has girth itch.
- Is girth itch itchy? It can be! For some horses, girth itch is quite literally itchy. You may notice this if your horse becomes itchy in the elbow area, and he’s typically not. Come to think of it, a horse that becomes itchy in ANY area could be telling you something with the skin is up. Investigate further if the new itch is constant and problematic.
- You may also see broken hairs or skin patches poking through around the elbow. Or, your horse will choose to tell you in other ways. Besides possible itchiness, horses may balk at tacking up or react to the cinch specificially. Food for thought – horses that seem agitated at tacking up may also have ulcers, an attitude, a sore back, or a poorly fitted saddle.
Treatments to clear up the infection
- Any skin infection or open wound like a girth gall needs the help of your veterinarian. It’s free to do an internet search for “solutions” – but here’s the kicker – many internet strangers’ recipes don’t have anything to do with the cause of the problem. Skin problems could be only tack-related, an allergy, fungus, bacteria, or any number of things affecting the skin. Many causes of skin infections require prescriptions for fast and safe healing.
Addressing your tack
- When presented with girth area problems – one of the first things to do is adjust the tack you use. Girths come in tons of sizes, shapes, and materials, so it’s time to experiment.
- Newer cinches and girths have contoured shapes to avoid the elbow area. Or you may want to change the material of the girth you are using. You can find cinches and girths in leather, neoprene, fabric, fleece-lined, and even corded fabric.
- Be warned that neoprene traps heat, making your horse sweat even more. Pick another girth material if sweat is a major contributing factor.
- You can also cover your existing girth. Slippery girth covers may work better than fleece or sheepskin covers. And once a sore is imminent, any textured fabric may worsen the area.
- Thoroughly clean any tack that touches your horse, after every single use. Don’t reuse saddle pads, and be that person that doesn’t share.
Addressing the skin around the elbow and girth and preventative care
- Moisture is fungus’s favorite climate, including humid climates and sweaty horses.
- Ideally, keep the skin around the girth area clean and dry. There’s a fine line between keeping things clean and over-using products. When using too much shampoo or too-frequent bathing, a horse’s sebum (his natural oils) disappear and his natural anti-microbial defenses are gone. Help your horse stay clean with grooming and rinsing with water if necessary.
- Use clean curry combs and brushes, and don’t share them around the barn. Clean grooming tools with a chlorhexidine solution for anti-microbial action. Your hands and eyes are also valuable tools. Spend the time to visually and physically inspect all those folds of skin.
- You may also want to bust out the clippers, even in the summer. You may find that the hair is abrasive, worsening it all. Hair may also be trapping sweat, especially in winter. I’ve known a few horses that do best when their elbow area is clipped short, all year long.
- Inspect everything! Part of your daily grooming routine could be feeling every inch of your horse’s body and visually inspecting the nooks and crannies. You may find cuts, damaged or rubbed hair, ticks and bug, hives, itchiness, tenderness, scabs, and lots of other indications of a skin problem.
- Loop your vet in when you see missing hair or a sore forming. You may find it helpful to take photos to track healing and progress.
- Use friction-blocking sticks to create a slippery surface. These deodorant-like sticks provide a slick layer so that tack, hair, and skin can slide over each other, reducing hair breakage and sores.
- If they develop a sore, some horses are more likely to have a sore develop again, even after healing. Stay alert to skin changes.
- If your horse should happen to develop girth itch or a girth gall, skip riding for a while and work on other things! There are plenty of ways to keep your horse fit without tack.
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