Equestrian sports offer a diverse array of challenges for riders and their horses, whether they are professionals competing at the highest level or leisure riders enjoying their time in the saddle. Among these, skin conditions in horses, particularly hives, have gained attention this year in particularly due to their impact on our horse’s well-being and performance. In this comprehensive article, we’ll delve into the complexities of equine skin issues, explore the role of allergies, and present a compelling case study involving Jack a horse of James Sommerville’s in the year 2023.
Understanding Lumps, Bumps and Rashes
Before we delve into the case study, it’s crucial to understand the world of skin issues in the horse.
The skin serves as a crucial barrier, safeguarding against external threats such as infections, irritants, and toxins. However, this protective shield can be breached, leading to a range of immune responses and skin issues. This article delves into the connection between lumps, bumps, rashes, and skin infections, exploring the role of allergies, allergens, and other contributing factors.
Despite its robust nature, the skin can be compromised by various factors, including scratches, insect bites, bacterial infections, and even inhaled or ingested pathogens. These challenges can lead to localised immune responses but can also have broader effects, with the skin being one of the primary areas affected.
Allergies play a significant role in both localised and non-localised skin reactions. They can stem from various sources, and food allergens are a common trigger. Food allergens, which are often (glyco-) proteins, mediate immune responses through types I, III, and IV hypersensitivities. These reactions can range from anaphylaxis to delayed hypersensitivity, depending on the allergen. Allergens, be it in food, pollen, insect bites, or skin infections, initiate distinct immune pathways.
In all these cases, there are common threads, and one such factor is the generation of histamine. Histamine plays a pivotal role in various inflammatory and regulatory processes, including atopic dermatitis, a form of skin inflammation. Depending on the context, histamine can lead to localised pruritis (itching), as seen in conditions like Sweet Itch, or non-localised reactions, across a greater dermatological area, resulting in urticaria, commonly known as hives. Chronic urticarias are often associated with food allergens, dust, and environmental factors, further complicating the picture.
Surveys have shown that chronic urticarias can be triggered by various allergens, including food allergens, dust, forage mites, and moulds. Additionally, environmental factors, exercise, and sweat-induced urticaria can also influence the condition.
Urticarial horses often present with hives or wheals, commonly found on the neck, sides, and face. These lesions are initially soft and blanch under pressure due to vasodilation. Over time, they become firmer as inflammatory cells accumulate. In severe cases, these lesions can merge into large raised plaques. Horses with urticaria may or may not experience itching. As the lesions develop, oedema accumulates ventrally, and fluid exudation through the skin becomes visible, particularly on the ventral neck and abdomen. The onset of lesions is typically acute.
The Challenge of Identifying the Causes
One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with skin reactions like hives is the difficulty in pinpointing a single cause. Like Sweet Itch, which can be a contributing factor, the primary approach to managing the condition involves reducing various stimuli. However, identifying the individual or cumulative causes can be challenging.
Standard Medical Interventions
The standard medical intervention for hives is the use of antihistamines. This approach makes sense as histamine is a common factor in what is believed to be an IgE-mediated response involving mast cell degranulation and a Th2-skewed immune response. However, it’s important to note that histamine also serves as a regulatory chemical with various functions, including influencing wound healing, reducing the impact of conditions like asthma and colitis, and acting as a pro-inflammatory agent.
Apart from antihistamines, the removal or reduction of allergens is a recommended treatment. In the case of hives, this can be challenging due to the diverse potential causes. Eliminating known allergens, such as soya, may be sufficient, but a systematic removal of all feed ingredients may be necessary, especially when dealing with multi-ingredient feeds or supplements that contain less obvious allergens, such as BHT (an anti-oxidant) or certain naturally occurring aromatic compounds.
Other recommended actions include the use of pre/probiotics to optimise the microbiota. Research has shown that a more diverse range of microbial populations can reduce the impact of allergens. Additionally, natural flavonoids, bioactive compounds that interact with oxidative stress reduction, can help reduce inflammation, which in turn regulates histamine release. This approach is more selective than relying solely on anti-histamines.
Another strategy is to target additive factors such as insect bites, as reducing these factors and their interaction with pruritis can help alleviate hives. Products like TurmerAid ™ can have positive effects on gut health, while TurmerItch ™ can repel biting insects and provide antioxidant support during localised inflammatory processes. By incorporating these supplements and removing known allergens, there is potential to reduce the occurrence of hives.
Now that we’ve explored the landscape of equine skin issues and allergies let’s turn our attention to a specific case study that sheds light on these complexities.
James Sommerville's: A Case Study
In 2023, James Sommerville, a three-day eventer found himself with an unexpected twist in his competitive plans for the year as one of his horses, “Jack” presented with a troublesome outbreak of hives.
In past summers, Jack had occasionally developed spotty pink pigmentation around his muzzle and shoulders. These pigmentation changes had not impacted his performance or well-being. However, this year was different as he had never encountered hives before, which manifested as itchy, raised welts on his skin—a new and unexpected uncomfortable experience for Jack.
The Onset of Hives: April 2023
The first signs of hives in Jack surfaced in April 2023, but it took six weeks to reach a point where a proactive approach could be taken. This marked the beginning of James Sommerville’s quest to understand and manage Jack’s skin issues.
Exploring Stable Management
To address Jack’s hives, the team initiated a series of changes in his stable management. These included switching his bedding from straw to shavings and conducting thorough cleanings of his living area. Jack was equipped head to hoof with full-coverage fly rugs to shield him from pesky flies and subjected to daily baths with a steroid wash. In the initial stages, he was also administered medications like Dexamethasone and Cetirizine. Unfortunately, these interventions provided minimal relief, prompting the decision to discontinue veterinary drugs.
Blood tests were conducted to gain further insights into Jack’s condition. Surprisingly, the results indicated that Jack’s symptoms were linked to allergies rather than solely environmental factors. This marked the introduction of Dr Tom Shurlock, Consultant Nutritionist at British Horse Feeds.
Turnout Times and Ridden Work
A meticulous review of Jack’s daily schedule revealed interesting findings. On pleasant days, when his “devil eye” (a reference to eye sensitivity) was absent, Jack enjoyed 1-2 hours of turnout four times a week during the summer. His ridden work remained consistent, with sessions occurring 6-7 times a week, each lasting at least an hour. Whether it involved leisurely hacks or intense schooling in the arena, Jack’s exercise regimen remained robust.
Although Jacks blood results had indicated allergens, Dr Tom suspected there might still be some seasonal factors at play quoting “it’s peculiar that these symptoms are surfacing during a prolonged dry spring. When it comes to hives, I still believe that they might be triggered by a certain threshold, and dietary elements could be pushing it over the edge.”
Hence Jack’s diet underwent significant adjustments in response to the onset of hives and elimination of soya, wheat and alfalfa from Jacks diet took place in addition to incorporating supplements with antioxidant and reduced inflammatory processes into his diet.
Jacks diet was stripped back to feed Fibre-Beet for condition and slow-release energy alongside a non-heating nutrient dense balancer and anti-oxidant and reduced inflammatory cycle supplements
Fibre-Beet is subjected to extreme temperatures as part of the cooking process that denatures alfalfa proteins making it an ideal staple feed for Jack.
Allergen proteins tend to have a specific (quaternary shape) that the body mistakes for pathogens. By denaturing these proteins the shape is changed.
Under normal production systems horse feed is probably steamed under pressure (pre-press conditioners) for a relatively short time; this has been increased for Fibre-Beet. As such we are correct in talking about denaturing, so it doesn’t conflict with the alfalfa allergens (if it is this, it might be another)
In the quest to alleviate Jack’s hives, an interesting observation emerged. His time spent on the walker and consistent exercise routines seemed to have a positive impact. Whenever he had a few days off, the hives would resurface, albeit less aggressively. This curious correlation highlighted the intricate nature of equine skin conditions and the role of activity in their management.
The case of Jack, in conjunction with our exploration of equine skin issues and allergies, serves as a compelling reminder of the complexity of equine health. It showcases the importance of thorough investigation, adaptable management, and a holistic approach when dealing with conditions like hives. Through meticulous care and experimentation, James and his team found a way to keep Jack comfortable and improve his well-being, underscoring the commitment and dedication of equestrians in ensuring their horses’ well-being and performance in the face of unexpected challenges. Whether you’re an experienced rider or a horse enthusiast, the story of Jack provides valuable insights into the multifaceted world of equine health and well-being.