Wet Weather Horse Care

example pastern dermatitis horse, mud fever horse, horse skin problems

Here Comes the Rain Again

By Brittani Kirkland, Extension Educator

Persistent and large amounts of rainfall can create challenges for equine care and have negative effects on your horse’s overall health.

With rainfall comes an abundance of puddles and mud. Highly trafficked and concentrated areas in pastures can rapidly become slippery and muddy, which can be a burden to both horse and horse owner. Horse caretakers may find it cumbersome to walk in areas with excessive mud, and normal care and feeding routines may need to be adjusted. In addition, horses standing or walking in wet areas can experience an increase in hoof, soft tissue, and skin related health conditions. Pooling water can also serve as an ideal breeding ground for insects that can be a nuisance to horses and horse owners alike. However, with proper management and care you can reduce the negative impacts of these rainy times on yourself, your horse, and your farm.

Common Health Issues Exacerbated by Rainfall

Many horse owners become frustrated during wet weather when their horse enjoys a roll in the mud and extra grooming is required. A horse may roll to cover their body in mud to discourage biting insects, but more often, rolling is intended to assist the horse in scratching itchy areas. However, coats that are caked in mud can be troublesome as mud may compromise the horse’s skin, promoting a common irritation known as rain rot. Rain rot is a skin infection that often occurs during times of extended rainfall. It causes hair loss and can become a threat to the horse’s health, limiting work and riding. Keeping the horse’s coat clean and dry will deter rain rot. (See How to Diagnose, Treat & Prevent Rain Rot in Horses.) 

When standing in muddy areas, horses can develop scratches, also called greasy heel. This condition is similar to rain rot on the body of the horse, but is concentrated to the lower leg area. If a horse develops this condition, treatment can be difficult as it is hard to eliminate contact with wet mud or grass. Removing mud on the lower legs and allowing the leg areas to dry daily will minimize issues. Severe cases of scratches can cause lameness, therefore immediate treatment is imperative.

example pastern dermatitis horse, mud fever horse, horse skin problems

While rain rot and scratches affect the horse’s skin, heavy rain can also impact the horse’s hooves. Thrush, hoof cracks, white line disease, and hoof abscesses are a few hoof conditions that become prominent in times of wet weather. To reduce occurrence, ensure that your horse can stand in a clean, dry environment. Also, pick out the hooves regularly and stay on a consistent trimming schedule (every six weeks is optimal, or based on your farrier’s advice) to promote overall hoof health. Be aware of the signs of hoof problems, such as foul smell and lameness, and reach out to your veterinarian and farrier if an issue is suspected. Treatment can vary depending on the condition.

Horses standing, walking, or running in mud are susceptible to tendon and ligament injuries. These injuries are often identified by localized swelling, heat, and/or lameness. If you think your horse has a tendon or ligament injury, seek care from your veterinarian. Limit the amount of the horse’s activity in muddy areas to help prevent these injuries.

example pastern dermatitis horse, mud fever horse, horse skin problems

Use a sacrifice paddock during wet weather to keep horses from damaging the pasture. It should have sturdy fencing and be located on higher ground if possible. Photo: iStockéSteverts

Changes to Insect Populations

A high presence of insects often accompanies wet weather and can be a nuisance to horses and their owners. Rainfall and ponding create moist, muddy areas that become a breeding ground for flies, mosquitoes, and other types of insects. Mosquito larvae thrive in stagnant waters found in drinking troughs and puddles. Draining and managing surface water areas can eliminate ponding. Mosquitoes are vectors for many diseases that can affect both humans and animals. Protection and inoculation for mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus is recommended for equines that live in areas with high mosquito populations.

Mud Mitigation

To help reduce impacts of rain on your horses, it is important to implement mud management strategies when caring for and designing your facilities. When designing your horse farm, site buildings on higher ground to help promote drainage. Similarly, consider using natural grassy areas and vegetation slopes as diversions and buffers. Existing facilities can also be altered by adding ditches, trenches, and gutters to help route water to areas of less traffic. It is recommended to work with professional engineers when fixing drainage problems, as it is easy to accidentally create a new problem somewhere else.

example pastern dermatitis horse, mud fever horse, horse skin problems

Consider your building site in terms of the slope, drainage, and prevailing winds. Observe the site during heavy rain to see where water naturally pools. Site buildings on higher ground where possible to promote good drainage and air flow. Photo: Dreamstime/Anne Kitzman

One of the most important things to consider when trying to reduce rainfall impacts is pasture condition. Turning horses out on pasture when the soil is wet causes soil compaction and damages plant root systems. The appearance of deep hoof prints, standing water, and bare ground is a sign that the soil is being damaged. One way you can reduce the amount of soil compaction and loss of grass is by designating a sacrifice paddock. A sacrifice paddock is a non-grazing area where horses are kept for an allotted time to help reduce impact on other pastures. Many horse owners use paddocks, run-outs, corrals, and dry lots to serve as sacrifice lots. Using sacrifice lots when the ground is extremely wet can help reduce the deterioration of grasses in grazing pastures.

Related: Let's Talk Mud

Horse Care

Overall, make sure you are maintaining good hygiene for your horses during rainy times. Frequent grooming and inspection are imperative in reducing rain impacts and preventing health issues from being exacerbated. If your horse’s coat is long, use hands-on contact with your horse’s body when evaluating for rain rot, scratches, or other skin conditions. Be consistent and thorough in your inspections and provide adequate and prompt treatment when needed. Reduce overall exposure to rain and mud as much as possible, by keeping horses in dry, clean environments.

With preventative care and advance planning you’ll be better prepared to weather the rainy season and reduce the impact of wet weather on your horses and your facility.  

The Penn State Extension Equine Team is a group of equine educators providing research-based information on equine health, nutrition, and pasture/environmental management. Serving the state of Pennsylvania, the team offers educational material to horse owners through publications, workshops, online courses, webinars, and consults. 

For more information about the team and current educational offerings, click here. Be sure to follow the team on Facebook.

Main Photo: Shutterstock/Bryant Aardema