Many horses including cobs tend to have lots of feather on their lower legs and although this feature adds to their overall appearance in a great way, it can also present a problem which involves mites with the more common ones being Chorioptes.
Certain breeds like the Shire have a tremendous amount of feather that covers their entire hooves whereas others may only have a little, but they are still prone to getting mites and if left untreated, it can become a serious problem. Once a horse has picked up any mites, it can lead to a tremendous amount of irritation and soreness. Severe cases can lead to horses going lame
Mites are parasitic arthropods, related to the tick family. They are microscopic and therefore all too easy to miss with a visual inspection. They live in both the hair and just under the skin and thrive on the protein-rich structures of the skin cells. Horses start to stamp their hind legs and will often chew on their forelegs often rubbing them together or up against fence posts and stable walls.
If the infestation is very severe, horses will develop thickened skin which then starts to scab, more especially around their pasterns. This can quickly lead to open sores which a secondary bacterial infection can take hold in causing a horses legs to swell up which can lead to lameness.
These microscopic parasites live just about anywhere which includes in straw and hay to name but two places they are commonly found. Birds carry them in on the wing when they visit stables or barns. With feather mites as with others mites, horses tend to pick them up when they come into contact with another horse that may already have them or from hay and straw they may come into contact with which has been infested.
However, you may never know how your horse picked them up, but once they have you need to start a treatment as soon as you can to prevent a secondary infection taking hold in any open sores.
Mites can also be passed on via rugs and bedding, so it is important to wash and disinfect any rugs or other equipment bought or borrowed second-hand before using them on your own horse. If you are moving your horse to a new stable, ensure that any remaining bedding is removed and disposed of and that the stable is thoroughly disinfected before your horse uses it.
It is especially important to be alert to the signs of mites if your horse is heavily feathered, although remember that any horse or pony can pick them up. The first sign of a mite infestation is usually a general localised irritation and as previously mentioned, horses tend to stamp their legs, rubbing them together and even chewing on their forelegs in an attempt to alleviate the irritation.
A vet would need to carry out a microscopic examination to establish whether or not it is feather mites causing the problem and they would do this by taking some hair samples from the horse. However, you need to bear in mind that many horses especially those with plenty of feather may never be free of these mites which means it is really a question of keeping on top of the problem rather than being able to cure it.
Currently in the UK there are no licensed products to treat feather mites in horses and these parasites are incredibly resilient which makes it extremely challenging to get rid of them. A horse that suffers with a heavy infestation may be more prone to “flare-ups” even when they are being treated.
Clip feathers off every month before washing your horse's legs with Hibiscrub or you may prefer to use Seleen. Both these products remove all the grease and dirt found on the legs which helps prevent a secondary bacterial infection from taking hold in any open sores no matter how small they happen to be.
It is best to use shavings as a bedding rather than straw and to completely muck out a stable at least once a month after you have washed and clipped your horse's legs which reduces the risk of a re-infestation or flare-ups.
If you find any lesions or scabs on your horse's legs, use an antiseptic cream on them – a good one is Dermisol. It's also a good idea to add a supplement to their feed which Dodson Horrel produce called Itch Free. This will go a long way in helping to reduce the amount of irritation your horse may be feeling and therefore prevent too much self-trauma.
If you find your horse is suffering from a severe infestation, then you need to discuss things with your vet who would be able to give you prescription-strength medication to treat your horse which they would only do after having thoroughly examined them.
Once the vet has confirmed their diagnosis, they may suggest treatments which could include injections, medicated sprays or washes as well as antibiotic creams that would effectively treat the secondary bacterial infection that has more than likely taken hold.
As previously touched upon, all too often it is virtually impossible to completely rid a horse with feather of these nasty parasites. As such managing the condition is essential. You need to turn out your horse as often as possible always keeping an eye out for mud rash when the ground is wet and muddy which is especially true if you've clipped your horse's legs.
Using a strong antiseptic barrier cream is also very useful when managing feather mites. Products like Protocon are ideal especially if you find any lesions or open scabs on the already damaged skin.
It's far better to bed your horse down on shavings rather than straw if you need to keep them in for any reason and to make sure you completely muck out their stables at least once a month after you have clipped the feathers off all their legs which again, needs to be done at least once a month.