The skin and haircoat
The skin is the largest organ in the body and its main roles are as a protective barrier, in keeping the body at a set temperature (thermoregulation) and acting as a sensory organ. It also produces vitamin D in sunlight.
The skin consists of two main layers, the outside of which is composed of dead, flattened cells that give a resilient, waterproof layer. Underneath is a layer that supports and nourishes the outer layer and it rich in elastic fibres and connecting, non-elastic collagen, which allows the skin to move and flex with the body.
The coat of hair that overlies the skin gives horses thermoregulatory powers to enable them to survive comfortably in a wide range of environmental temperatures, is involved in sensory perception and acts as a barrier to protect the skin.
Skin and coat facts:
- The skin is the largest organ in the body
- In order to stay healthy and functional, the skin relies on a constant supply of essential nutrients including protein, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids
- Vitamins A and E, essential amino acids, the minerals zinc and copper and omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids are particularly important for a healthy skin and coat
- Supplementing B vitamins and especially biotin at supra-optimal levels may help boost the skin and coat
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could help dampen inflammatory responses in the skin
- Feed allergies that cause hives and/or itching are uncommon and most skin allergy symptoms are due to insects or external contact. An elimination diet is required for a positive diagnosis of feed allergy
- Supplementing linseed and certain B vitamins can help with itchy skin
How to feed for healthy skin and a shiny coat
First and foremost, ensure a well-balanced diet with extra vitamins and mineralse.g., Equestrizone PegaVite if there is any doubt about micronutrient intake. There is no point in adding oils or other skin-supporting supplements if the diet doesn’t contain all the essential micronutrients in the correct amounts.
Some dietary guidelines to help promote healthy skin and haircoat:
- Balance the diet correctly with adequate vitamins and minerals, and good quality protein
- Feed enough oils and supplement omega-3 fatty acids (e.g with linseed (flaxseed) oil or fish (e.g. salmon) oils)
- Consider herbs including seaweed, nettle and marigold
- Consider probiotics since they may boost hair growth and lustre
Marigold (Calendula) is a soothing, anti-inflammatory herb which is used for skin issues. Nettle – a well-known tonic herb – is traditionally fed to encourage dappling of the coat. Nettles are rich in biologically-active phenolic compounds and have antioxidant properties. Seaweed is rich in essential minerals and especially iodine, and is traditionally fed for a good coat and strong hooves. Cider apple vinegar is traditionally classed as an astringent and blood cleanser. It is described as an ‘alterative’, or a remedy that restores proper function of the body and increases health and vitality.
Dealing with itchiness
The best safeguard against itchiness is ensuring the best possible skin and coat health with all the information above. On top of ensuring the diet is well balanced and adding extras to help support the skin and coat, consider also adding B vitamins and linseed.
B vitamin supplementation with brewer’s yeast or specific B-complex supplements containing niacin (vitamin B3) are believed to help reduce itchiness, but they need to be started early, and before midges appear.
Feeding linseed meal is recommended. Researchers in a trial of affected horses showed reduced skin test response to Culicoides midges (a decrease in the allergic reaction) after daily feeding of supplementary milled linseed (450 g per 450 kg bodyweight daily). Linseed’s anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are likely to be the most important active ingredient, although the researchers mentioned that other phytochemicals may also be involved. See www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC227015/
The skin is a protective and sensory body organ that helps ensure thermoregulation. Using the diet to ensure the health of the skin and the associated hair will allow it to function optimally, minimise itchiness and keep the horse looking great.