Equine care question: Can horses sunburn?

Should horse owners take precautions to prevent equine sunburn?

Sunny days bring welcome outdoor excursions for equestrians and their horses. What could be more appealing to an equine than the great out of doors? However, for many horses, this bright blessing of nature may come with an increased risk – a sore sunburn.

Is sunburn a danger for horses?

Sunburn can certainly be a threat to horses, causing discomfort and even skin cancer (in the most serious cases). Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer found in horses, and this may frequently be traced to severe sunburns from ultraviolet (UV) exposure in sunlight.

Cremello Horse - public domain photo

What sorts of horses are most likely to experience sunburn?

Usually, light-colored horses are most susceptible to sunburn. Appaloosas, Cremello Horses, Paint Horses, Perlino Horses, Pinto Horses and other pale horses can burn easily in the sun.

Any horse with white markings or patches may be at risk of sunburn, particularly with lengthy sun exposure. Horses may have white markings (with pink skin underneath their hair) on their faces, legs, backs, bellies or anywhere on their bodies. These light-colored regions are most susceptible to sun damage, as they carry minimal skin pigmentation.

Dark-haired horses (and dark patches on multi-hued horses) carry considerably more skin pigmentation, which protects them from the sunlight far more than their lighter-colored equine counterparts. However, horses with dark hair (such as bay horses, black horses and chestnut horses) may experience some fading or dappling of their coats with lengthy exposure to the sun. This is not physiologically harmful, but it can change the appearance of these equines.

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What additional risk factors may increase sunburn in horses?

Extended exposure to sunlight is the most prominent risk factor, leading to a horse’s vulnerability to sunburn. An equine that spends many hours (or all day) in a bright and sunny pasture without shade options may be most likely to experience sunburn – particularly if he or she has light coloring.

Additionally, some weeds can increase a horse’s risk of developing sunburn by raising his or her photosensitivity (or sensitivity to the sun’s ultraviolet rays), if the horse ingests these weeds. These plants include bindweed, buckwheat, certain clovers, ragwort, rye, St. John’s Wort and more.

Equines suffering from liver disease (or those taking antibiotic and certain other medications) may also be extra photosensitive, putting them at increased risk of sunburn.

What are the symptoms of sunburn in horses?

Sunburned horses will usually have pink or reddish skin, which may be peeling, blistering or even oozing. A horse with sunburn may also have flaking or cracking skin, scabs or swollen areas.

If a horse becomes sunburned on his or her back or withers, the horse may not be able to carry a saddle or rider comfortably until the sunburned area has healed.

Of course, horses can be protected from sunburn by the use of sunscreen products, summer horse garments (such as fly masks and light sheets) and strategic use of pasturing (including shade offerings).

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