The skin is by far the largest organ of the mammalian body. It helps to protect the body’s internal organs and systems from a variety of harmful external stimuli. The skin is very important in helping horses fend off flies and the harsh summer sun. But, equines can suffer from burns due to exposure to the sun, hot sand, and consumption of photosensitizing agents.

Like humans, horses suffer various degrees of burns on their skin. These burns are caused by many factors. This article will discuss the two most common burns that horses suffer and how to treat them. They are:

Horse Sand Burn

Sand burn is a skin condition in horses that results in burned skin. Vets refer to this condition as sand-burn because it is caused by agents emanating from the sand in the pasture or field the horse is grazing in. This problem can be caused by two factors:

Horses lay down a lot. When they lay on the sand, bacterial infections from the sand may eat the hair on their skin away. This causes burns to the coat. The more severe and recurrent form of horse sand burn is the one caused by photosensitizing agents. These are weeds that grow on the sand of your pasture or the field your horse grazes in. The consumption of any of these weeds can make your equine become sensitive to sunlight.

There are various agents that make horses become sensitive to UV light. The following are some of the weeds that can cause your horse to develop sand-burn condition:

  • Ragwort
  • Buckwheat
  • Perennial ryegrass
  • Tetracyclines
  • Sulfa antibiotics, and
  • St. John’s wort

Clover and alfalfa are responsible for what is described as secondary photosensitivity. The damage they cause to the body of the horse may extend as far as liver damage. This is due to heavy consumption of these plants. Bacterial, fungal, and viral infections can also cause secondary photosensitivity. These can also result in liver damage and liver cancers.

The appearance of skin lesions around the eyes and nostrils are early signs. Owners often notice these when their horses are suffering from sandburn or photosensitization. The affected skin area begins to peel or appears scaly, it becomes red. Some horses develop blisters and leak serum from the damaged skin in severe cases. Horses with burns suddenly become head shy. The horse becomes reluctant to wear a halter or bridle. Horses that are prone to recurrent cases of sandburn may battle long-term consequences. One of such consequences is developing squamous cell carcinoma. This is a cancer common to non-pigmented areas of the body.

List Of Bacteria That May Cause Horse Sand Burn

  • Brucella abortus
  • Actinomyces bovis
  • Clostridium tetani
  • Clostridium septicum
  • Sphaerophorus necrop
  • Streptococcus equi
  • Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis
  • Streptococcus pyogenes
  • Peptostreptococcus spp
  • Bacteroides spp
  • Proteus mirabilis
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Actinobacillus mallei

How To Treat Horse Sand Burn

Step 1

Check your pasture for photosensitizing weeds

Sand burn is caused by ingestion of photosensitizing agents. These end up increasing the sensitivity of your horse to UV light. This is why you need to carefully examine your pasture when you discover that your horse keeps having recurring sunburn. Look out for weeds like ragwort, perennial ryegrass, alsike clover, St. John’s wort, or wild buckwheat on the pastures or fields your horse grazes in. When found, you should remove them from your pasture and replace them with safer plants. If your horse continues to eat these plants they may be at risk of having liver damage or liver cancer. The sun burn symptoms will go away when your horse stops eating any of these plants.

Step 2

Apply a steroid cream to reduce inflammation

A steroid cream will help reduce swelling and inflammation from the burn. Make sure you read the label directions before applying. You may also seek your vet’s advice on the best steroid cream to use.

Step 3

Apply an antiseptic cream if the burn is peeling or oozing

Using an antiseptic cream will help prevent infections in blistered or oozing skin. Buy an antiseptic cream such as Sudocream or Savlon from a local drug store and rub it into the affected areas. You may contact your vet for antibiotic injection in severe cases. Over-the-counter antibiotics may also be used. They are helpful in treating open sores.

Horse Sunburn

Sunburn is caused by equine’s exposure to the sun. Like humans, horses can get burned if they stay out too long in the sun. The non-pigmented pink-skinned areas of their body are most susceptible to sunburn. This is why sunburns are common with grey and white horses. It is seen most frequently around their eyes and muzzle. The horse breeds that commonly suffer from sunburn are:

  • Pintos
  • Appaloosas
  • Paint
  • Cremellos

Burns usually occur in horses that are photosensitive. Photosensitivity in horses refers to sensitivity to sun exposure. Sensitivity to sun exposure has a slight difference to sunburn. This is because it often affects both pigmented and non-pigmented areas of the equine’s body.

How To Treat Horse Sunburn

Sunburns should not be allowed to fester. It can increase your horse’s risk of developing skin cancer. Follow the steps below in treating sun burns in your horse:

Step 1

Identify the burnt area

The common areas where horses are likely to develop sun burn are:

  • Their ears
  • The skin around their eyes
  • Bare patches around their muzzle
  • Down the bridge of their nose

Sunburns may also occur on any light-colored patches on your equine’s coat. After noticing sunburn, make sure you examine the horse to identify all the other affected areas. Look out for the signs mentioned earlier.

Step 2

Move the horse into the stable

It’s advisable to keep the horse in the stable for a few days and limit their exposure to the sun while they recover. When outside, keep them under a shade, under trees or shaded paddock. This will help prevent the burn from becoming aggravated. Make sure your stable is well-ventilated. This will help to avoid the horse suffering from heat exhaustion. Protect the burnt areas by wearing a fly mask or sun blocking mask for the horse when outside.

Step 3

Apply diaper rash cream on the burnt area

Diaper rash creams can help heal your horse’s sunburn. These creams are specifically designed to soothe diaper rash. But, they may also treat sunburn in horses. Get a trusted product from your local drug store. Then, apply it on the affected area twice daily until the sunburn disappears.

Step 4

Apply Aloe on the burnt area

Get a pure aloe sun gel from your local drug or grocery store. Apply it on the burnt area twice daily until the sunburn disappears. Aloe can help hydrate the affected skin area while providing a cooling relief. It is a safe plant extract.

Step 5

Let your horse drink enough water

Horses suffering from sunburn are usually at risk of heat stress. They may often get thirsty as well. Make sure the equine has access to enough water as it recovers.

How To Prevent Sunburn In Horses

Stable the horse during the day

During summer, keep your horse away from the sun, especially between 10am and 4pm. Let the equine rest in a cool, well-ventilated stable. Avoid riding your horse when the heat of the sun is strong. Try to schedule your horse riding in the morning and evening when the sun is mild. When your horse gets out during the day make sure they have a shade over them. Rest them under a tree or in a covered paddock.

Apply Sunscreen

Use horse sunscreen to protect your equine’s skin from the sun. Rub the sunscreen around the bare areas of their face and any light-colored areas of their coat. You may also use children’ sunscreen.

Use a fly mask over your horse’s face

With a fly mask you can protect the most sensitive parts of your horse’s face from the sun. The best fly mask is the one that will cover the eyes and muzzle. Also look for a fly mask with an extra long nose piece. Sunscreen can make the fly mask get goopy. Rinse it out with a hose and let it dry in the sun.

Cover light-colored horses with a blanket

Drape a fly sheet or blanket over light-colored horses to keep the sun off. This is good for horses with large patches of white or light colors on their back. Choose a light fabric or airy fabrics that won’t overheat the horse.

The Four Degree Of Burns In Horses

There are four degrees of burns identifiable in horses. This refers to the severity of the burned skin and the level of damage caused or likely to cause to the equine’s skin and health:

  • First-Degree Burn
  • Second-Degree Burn
  • Third-Degree Burn
  • Fourth-Degree Burn

First-degree and second-degree burns do not affect the deeper layers of the horse’s skin. Sun burns and sand burns usually fall within either of these two. The wounds caused by these types of burns will heal without the vet having to conduct grafting. Grafting is a process in which the vet takes healthy skin from one part of the equine’s body. Then, they transfer it to the wound area to aid healing. Third-degree burns result in the loss of the skin. Fourth-degree burns cause damage to tissues beneath the skin. This includes tendons, muscles, and bones. Both third-degree and fourth-degree burns are life-threatening if the affected area is wide. Serious cases of burns are often a combination of second, third, and fourth-degree burns.

Some second-degree burns can be so serious that it affects the deeper layers of the skin. It becomes painful but nerve endings are still intact. Third and fourth degree burns, which are often a result of fire burn, destroy nerves. Second-degree burns cause vesicles and blisters. It’s advisable to leave them intact for the first 24 to 48 hours because the fluid provides protection from infection. They are also less painful than the exposed raw skin surface that appears when they break.

Third-degree burns cause damage beyond the deepest layer of the skin. It extends into subcutaneous tissues. Cool the burn with ice immediately after the injury or bath with cold water. Be careful not to apply too much water. This can increase the fluid swelling in the skin. These types of wounds only heal through the process of grafting or contraction. Contraction is the process by which the skin draws in from the edges of the wound.

When starting to treat third and fourth-degree burns, first clean the area. Then, apply a water-based antibiotic ointment over the affected areas. This will help prevent heat and moisture loss and protect the eschar which acts as a natural bandage. It also helps to prevent bacterial infection and potential bloodstream infection. It will help loosen necrotic tissue and debris as well.

There is more work to be done when the burn starts to heal. At this point, newly formed cells migrate under the eschar and lift it off the burn bed. This activity can make bacteria get under the eschar. The area should be cleaned two or three times daily with a weak chlorhexidine solution. Antibiotic ointment should be applied after each cleaning. Aloe vera may also be applied because it possesses properties that relieve pain. It also decreases inflammation while restricting the activities of bacterial and fungi infections.

How To Prevent Weight Loss In Burned Horses

Burned horses often suffer weight loss as a result of stress and demand for extra energy. The breakdown of protein and metabolic activities are greater during burn injuries than any other physical stress state. To keep the horse from losing weight, it’s advisable to gradually increase the grain and fat consumption of the horse. 4 to 8 ounces of vegetable oil and free-choice alfalfa hay should be offered to increase caloric intake.

A horse may need special nutritional consideration if it inhaled smoke or has a burned face. You may soak the hay with water to soften it. Feed on the ground if the horse has damage to mucosa in the mouth and upper airways. This will encourage drainage from the airways.


Burns are common skin problems that arise in horses. Sometimes these conditions are caused by the equine’s consumption habit. This is the case when horses ingest photosensitizing agents. At other times they are a result of the horse’s skin type. Horses with light-colored coats are usually susceptible to sunburns. It’s important to reduce their exposure to sunlight to protect their skin.

Sand burn is a skin condition. It may result from bacterial infection from the sand or photosensitivity caused by ingesting weeds. Such weeds include ragwort, buckwheat and perennial ryegrass. This will also manifest in the form of sunburn. It also appears like mange but it’s quite different. The symptoms discussed above will help you identify cases of sandburn. Take appropriate measures as discussed.

Your horse’s health should not be left to chance. Always ensure to observe your surroundings and look out for weeds that may hurt your horse. The earlier these problems are detected the better for you and your equine.