Dark nights and early mornings, frozen pipes and soggy fields would probably make the list of reasons many equestrians don’t greet the arrival of winter with much enthusiasm, as would “mud fever” - or “pastern dermatitis” to give it its proper name.
Mud fever isn’t a single condition but an umbrella term for a number of skin issues on the lower leg, caused by prolonged exposure to wet and mud. This results in irritation, matting of the hair, scabs and soreness. It is more common on the hind legs and tends to appear on the back of the pasterns.
Mud fever presents as angry thick scabs that appear in clumps on the horses lower limbs and in their heels,” says equine vet Lucinda Ticehurst. “The areas are normally reddened, may be swollen and hot and often crack and bleed. It is caused by a specific environmental bacteria that enters the skin when it has been compromised by being wet or through a small wound”
Mud fever isn’t contagious, so can’t be spread from horse to horse, although horses that live together might all be affected because of the muddy nature of their turnout.
What causes mud fever?
Mud fever is most common in winter because of the weather. Wet conditions cause the skin to soften and then mud rubs against the skin causing superficial damage where bacteria can enter. Horses that spend a lot of time outside can be more susceptible if their turnout is very poached and the weather particularly inclement as their legs don’t get much chance to dry. However, horses that regularly have their legs hosed off when coming in from the field but, crucially, but are not dried properly are also at risk.
Horses that often have their legs hosed down - but not dried - can be more at risk
Some believe skin colour also increases susceptibility. “Pink-skinned, white-haired horses do seem to be more prone to dermatitis buy they also can have a disorder very similar in presentation called leukocytoclastic vasculitis. This may require treatment with steroid creams too, which classic mud fever would not need. If in doubt about what may be the cause of the problem, always consult your vet,” advises Lucinda.
How to treat mud fever
The mud fever bacteria is wily! It sits under the thick scabs and crusts that it causes on the legs and in the heels. “Try to remove these scabs by soaking them off with a antibacterial skin scrub: wrap soaked cotton wool around the legs with either clingfilm or a bandage and leave it on for 30 mins,” says vet Lucinda. “This softens the scabs so they should just wipe away after. When dry, the apply an antibacterial cream, ideally a prescription-only cream that you can get from your vet. Apply the cream twice a day to clean legs. If the legs are particularly hairy it is best to clip around the scabs so the creams can get onto the skin where the scabs have been. In severe cases, when the legs start swelling and becoming hot and painful, a course of oral antibiotics may be needed. “
Prevention better than cure
If your horse is more at risk, consider putting a barrier cream (there are many mud fever protection creams on the market) before they are turned out. But note that such creams are for preventive measures and not for treatment. “If you horse already had mud fever, barrier creams can create a warm, moist environment for bacteria to grow and stop the active treatment creams getting to the problem. You might also consider protective boots but fit is essential – boots that do not fit well and rub are a curse not a cure,” says Lucinda Ticehurst.
Always make sure the legs are thoroughly dry before applying cream. If you can, try not to wash down your horse’s legs when you bring them in: wait until the mud dries and then brush it off. If you must hose down, dry the legs thoroughly but gently with a clean towel.
Trimming feathers can help with treatment
Mud fever can be painful and progressive and can also look like some more complicated skin problems. Always consult a vet on the best way to treat it.
The team at Redwings Horse Sanctuary says supporting skin health is essential to prevent. Their top tips include:
- Avoid prolonged exposure to moisture as this softens the skin and makes it more vulnerable. Examples include long dewy grass, muddy fields, extended use of boots and legs wraps or soiled bedding.
- Ensure good stable hygiene.
- Regularly check the skin especially under long feathers where the condition may remain hidden until severe.
- Regularly remove dried dirt and mud from the legs using a brush
- Hose down wet muddy legs when coming in from the field and pat the hair/skin thoroughly dry. Clipping long hair may make this easier to do if a horse is experiencing recurrent issues.
- Avoid skin abrasions from frequent walking in sand/gravel areas and prolonged use of boots
- Products are available to help protect skin from dirt and mud while grazing but should only be applied to clean dry legs to avoid sealing in dirt/moisture.
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