One method of tracking the horse's health condition is to observe the coat hair.
Many may ask why the horse's coat covering is called hair and not fur. Animals with a dense coat covering were utilized for garments, hence those coat coverings were called fur. The horse's coat covering is not usually used in apparel and therefore, it is called hair.
A horse that is in poor health may have a dull, coarse hair coat. A poor coat can be caused by parasitic ailments, Cushings Disease, thyroid imbalance and other horse diseases. Therefore, a horse owner should observe the growth and condition of the horse's coat to assess if potential health issues could exist.
In normal conditions a horse's hair coat protects him against the cold temperatures in winter and is replaced in spring with a lighter coat that is more adept at drying out if the horse becomes over-heated and sweaty.
Many horse owners clip or blanket their horse in late summer to suppress the growth of a thicker winter coat that would be difficult to dry if the horse sweats during exercise in colder months. If they begin to blanket their horse, they will need to continue blanketing throughout the winter.
The horse actually has three different hair coats: A summer hair coat and two winter coat growths. In the fall, the summer coat sheds out, and as the horse's body prepares for winter it produces the two different winter hairs - one is a short, thick layer while the other is long hairs that stick up and provide air spaces that serve as an insulating layer against cold winter temperatures.
Horse owners rarely notice the shedding of the summer coat, but most will notice a thicker coat appearing as the nights become shorter and cooler in the fall. When spring comes along and the horse sheds the winter coat, it becomes very apparent. As the owner handles her horse, she can become covered with the shedding hair, which also clogs her brushing utensils, and often finds horse hairs attached to trees and stall sidings where the horse rubs to self-brush the winter coat out.
Often the horse's coat color may change with the seasons, hence the saying "a horse of a different color."
In all cases, by summer the horse should be wearing a sleek, shiny summer coat which is easier for the owner to maintain.
This winter in central Pennsylvania has been unique compared with normal winters. Heavy rains occurred in the autumn, followed by an unseasonably mild winter. Throughout the winter, there were days where the temperature reached higher degrees than normal. Therefore, horse owners had some management adjustments concerning their well-care of their horses. Some reported their horses did not grow a thick hair coat and they had to provide blanketing on cold days, while others felt their horse produced a different, longer coat than normal, giving those owners a concern about possible hormonal imbalance or other health-related issues.
I was one of these horse owners with concerns. A 21-year-old mare I had owned for 12 years grew an exceptionally long coat last fall that was not typical for her. Since as a horse ages they tend to produce a longer winter coat that often poses difficulties with shedding out in the spring, I was not overly concerned. Yet, around the end of February, the horse began to shed, with the hair falling out in large clumps when touched. The best way to describe the effect was comparing it to the loss of human hair when going through chemo treatments. Usually, the horse's hair sheds rapidly, but does not come out in huge clumps to the bare skin. Just touching this horse's coat would lead to huge piles of hair falling out into your hands or onto the ground.
Just as I was about to call the veterinarian to check for potential health issues, I started receiving calls at the Extension office from other horse owners having the same issue. Some had veterinarian assistance and reported their horse might have a fungal issue and began treatments. Others stated the veterinarians could find nothing wrong with the horse that would be producing this strange shedding issue and played a wait-and-see game.
So, how is my horse doing? A short, wooly-looking hair mass began appearing within days on the clumps of bare skin. In less than three weeks, my mare began a normal shedding process in which the remaining winter hair comes out with brushing and rubbing but does not fall out in clumps. There does not appear to be any health issues or skin irritations, and the horse is eating and behaving normal. Therefore, I, too, am taking a wait-and-see approach.
It will be interesting to observe next year's winter coat growth on this mare and the following spring's shedding process.
Even though my horse does not appear to have any health issues causing her unusual shedding pattern, I would suggest others experiencing the same condition to consult with their veterinarian and eliminate any potential health issues that could be attributing to it.
The main ingredients for making a shinier hair coat or helping a horse shed out faster are a balanced diet and more grooming and body massage.
Observation of the horse's coat can be a great key to the overall nutritional and health care of the horse.
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Helene McKernan is the horse program assistant for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Clinton County, 726-0022.