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Heaves and Scratches: Two Issues Impacting Senior Horses Part 2: Scratches


Gail M. Staines, Ph.D.

Founder, The Senior Horse

July 22, 2021

This past weekend I volunteered as a scribe and ring steward at the National Dressage Pony and Small Horse Cup in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. Of all the shows I have been to over the years, this was by far the best! Professional and friendly management, horses of all ages and all breeds, rides from introductory level through FEI, and riders from children through people in their 70’s.

I had the opportunity to talk to many horse owners, riders, and officials. Almost every person said that they had a horse over the age of 18 at home! Some horses were still competing, though not as often; some are schoolmasters, teaching riders the art of dressage; and some are happily retired.

Two medical issues that were commonly mentioned by these owners of older equines were heaves and scratches.

In a previous post, I discussed heaves. Below is what I have learned about scratches.

(NOTE: I am not a veterinarian. For information regarding your specific horse, please consult with your veterinarian.)


The other issue that arose during my conversations was older horses getting scratches. Equine Pastern Dermatitis (EPD), often referred to as scratches, can occur in almost all horse breeds, but especially in horses with long, hairy fetlocks such as draft horses. (Yu, 2020) Horses that have unpigmented (very light or white skin) on their pasterns can be more susceptible to scratches than others.

Not a disease, scratches (also called mud fever) is the inflammation of the skin in the pastern area mainly caused by poor environmental conditions, fungus, parasites, and/or bacteria. Scratches can also be hereditary. (Kaiser-Thom, et. al (2021).

How does a horse get scratches?

A horse can acquire scratches any time of year, but is most often seen where horses are standing and living in an area that gets wet, then dries, then gets wet again, etc. A horse’s pastern can have minute cracks/openings in the skin, allowing fungi, bacteria, and mites to enter, causing irritation and inflammation. (Bonner, 2020) The pastern then becomes scabby and crusty, and can ooze. If untreated, this medical condition can become severe and is quite painful for the horse.

Treating Scratches

Scratches is treatable, however in some horses it may take some time to completely heal. Contact your veterinarian immediately so that they can provide you with the appropriate treatment.

If your horse has scratches, first trim the pastern hair carefully without scraping or breaking the skin.


  • Wash the infected area with antibacterial shampoo or antifungal shampoo. It is important to leave the shampoo on the infected area for about 10 minutes so that it can work most effectively.

  • Very gently, rinse off the shampoo.

  • Using a very clean towel, pat the infected area dry.

  • Apply your veterinarian supplied topical ointment.

  • If your horse has a very severe case of scratches, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics.

  • Make sure your horse is living in an environment with clean, dry footing.

  • If your horse is in a stall, use larger, fluffier shavings. This should keep the stall drier.

  • Some veterinarians also recommend that you apply a zinc-oxide based ointment such as Desitin to the dry areas of the pastern. This type of ointment acts as a protective barrier against moisture.

You may need to repeat the above steps for 7 to 10 days.

If your horse is lame, and/or you feel heat in the impacted pastern, and/or there is inflammation, and/or white or yellow oozing, contact your veterinarian immediately! (Purdue University, n.d.)

What NOT To Do

The best course of action in treating scratches is to contact your veterinarian.

Do NOT put the following on your horse’s scratches:

  • Listerine

  • Scarlet oil

  • Iodine

These are drying agents that irritate the skin.

Do NOT scrub the area vigorously. Clean gently. (Miller, 2017)

Before applying any topical medication, talk with your veterinarian! Putting the wrong thing on scratches may delay healing, causing your horse discomfort.

Preventing Scratches

Using preventative measures will greatly reduce the possibility of your senior equine (or any equine) from getting scratches.

This includes:

  • Grooming your horse daily including its’ pasterns. This will give you the opportunity to not only clean the area, but to inspect it for any signs of scratches.

  • Keep your horse in dry areas, both inside (in stalls) and outdoors. This means reducing mud and manure significantly.

  • If possible, try not to turn out your horse in the morning when there is dew on the grass.

Scratches is one of those conditions where prevention is key. Taking time to clean that area (and your entire horse) will go a long way in keeping your senior horse happy and healthy!


Bonner, L. (2020). Quick and easy scratches relief, Equus Magazine.

Kaiser-Thom, S. et al. (2021). The skin microbiota in equine pastern dermatitis: A case-control study of horses in Switzerland, Veterinary Dermatology.

Miller, G. (2017). Horse Journal OnCall : Severe Scratches Won’t Heal, EquiSearch.

Purdue University. College of Veterinary Medicine. (n.d.) Understanding and treating scratches in horses, Purdue University Veterinary Hospital.

Yu, A. (2020). Getting a handle on scratches in horses, The Horse.


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