Rubbing it in

The summer season often sparks skin irritation that can cause your horse to rub. Sweet itch is common during this time of year, and while most cases can be treated at home, more serious cases require veterinary attention.

Excessive or untreated rubbing can result in raw patches of skin, which are then at risk of becoming infected. There are several home remedies you can try, but always get your vet out if you suspect that the problem spans past just a summer itch. Get your vet out for proper cleaning, treatment and dressing if the skin has been rubbed raw.

What is it?

Sweet itch is a common skin condition that causes horses to rub, scratch or bite their skin. It’s caused by infections, allergies or by biting insects (ectoparasites). Midges are at their prime during the hot summer months and horses are susceptible to sweet itch by insect bites during this time. Midges are at their most active during dawn and dusk, making this a vulnerable time for horses to be out.

How to identify

Signs of sweet itch include rubbing of the mane, back and tail, loss of mane or tail hair, and bald or raw patches of skin. Sweet itch caused by allergies are harder to resolve and usually means that your horse is having a reaction to something he is eating. A lot of the vegetation dies during winter in South Africa, meaning that your horse might be tucking into something new in the summer months when all the vegetation has grown back. Sweet itch caused by infection can occur when a horse comes into contact with a hypoallergenic substance such as mould, pollen or dust.

If you are sure your horse has a case of sweet itch, inform your vet telephonically and ask for advice about best practice in terms of treatment. If you suspect the skin condition might be something other than sweet itch, ask your vet to come out and check your horse himself. There are a number of other equine skin conditions that could be the culprit, and could need more serious treatment. Other conditions include ringworm, bacterial infections, lice, mange, or an allergic reaction to bedding or pollen. Your vet can also take a skin scrape sample for testing to determine the exact cause of the skin irritation.


When treating sweet itch, be sure to use insect repellent products such as fly collars, fly spray and fly gel (to use on the face, main and tail). You can also use soothing natural shampoos, as well as ointments to treat affected areas. In a more severe case, get your vet out to assess your horse’s condition. He may advice the use of steroids to treat the irritation, or antihistamines – however, these can cause drowsiness. Installing a ceiling fan above your horse’s stable can be very useful in keeping midges and flies at bay, and this can also be a long-term solution for fly management.

If you hose your horse down after work in the afternoon, make sure to scrape as much water off him as possible, as insects are attracted to damp skin.

Sweet itch can leave your horse with ugly patches of hairless skin, or minimal scarring. Once the itch has been treated, you can apply baby oil or milking cream to the affected area to help nourish the skin. Hair growth will return when the skin has healed but this can take a little while.

Preventative measures

Make sure your horse wears a protective fly sheet during turnout. Other than your usual fly protection measures, you can consider feeding your horse a herbal supplement that specifically targets itch reduction. Some herbal products have fly-repellent ingredients, which over time help your horse to repel flies ‘from the inside out’.

The full article appears in the December issue (117) of HQ magazine > Shop now