What do I need to know about my horse’s integumentary system?
Your horse’s integumentary system is mainly his skin, but it includes hair, scales (if your horse is a dragon), feathers (for the Pegasus horses out there), whiskers, and hooves. Your horse’s skin is his largest organ, and has many functions. Horse skin is not just for looking good, it has immune functions, tactile (feeling) functions, and temperature regulation functions. Skin is busy.
Skin is made up of three layers - the subcutaneous layer, the dermis, the epidermis.
The epidermis is the outermost layer, and has loads of layers of cells and well as loads of types of cells. This layer physically blocks stuff from coming in and stops stuff from getting out. Keratinocytes make new cells at the base of the epidermis, and those cells move up and die as new ones are generated below. Other cells make pigment, some cells are involved in the immune system (think about a skin rash!), and still other cells are involved in sensations from whiskers and other specialized tactile areas.
The dermis contains a blood supply and sensory nerves! It’s also the location for collagen and elastin, which basically give your skin strength and flexibility. The yoga center of skin? Hair follicles live in the dermis, as do glands. Skin has oil glands and sweat glands, they are not the same thing!
The sub cutaneous layer contains muscle and fat. Here, the skin stores electrolytes and acts as a shock absorber. The sub cutaneous layer also has more nerves and blood vessels.
Comet, shown here resting his integumentary system.
With all of these amazing structures and functions, it’s a good thing we can basically see all of your horse’s integumentary system. Grooming makes a daily inspection super easy, and using your fingertips and eyes on your horse you can find a boat load of skin issues right away. Don’t forget, also, that there are tons of “overlooked” areas (like gums, butt cheeks, elbows) that hide skin stuff.
Be on the lookout for:
- Itching - some horses have that one “tickle spot”, sometimes your horse develops new itchy area. Pay attention to changes and act accordingly.
- Scales - perhaps your horse really is a dragon? But scaly skin can often indication a skin issue.
- Dandruff - ah, the flaky stuff. Diet, lice, dry weather can all create dandruff. Do some investigating.
- Hair loss - figure out WHY he’s losing hair and there’s your solution!
- Swelling - this could be a skin swelling, like a hive, or it could be the underlying tissue that’s swollen. Either way, OUCH.
- Heat - the companion of swelling. Definitely do some detective work.
- Hives - often an allergic reaction (to what?), sometimes can spread and interfere with breathing and other vital stuff.
- Scabs - part of being a horse that lives in nature is getting bites and nicks that scab, but scabs are a sign of skin infections such as rain rot and scratches.
- Cuts - what’s that old saying about horses being born and then spending every day trying to kill themselves? Treat cuts early to ward off infections and other complications.
- Blisters - also painful, and often a sign of a much more serious problem that might involve other parts of your horse.
- Sunburn/Photosensitivity - often hot red skin goes along with blisters and the sun, but only bloodwork can tell you if it’s photosensitivity linked to a liver problem.
- Thickening - Callous? Tumor? Who knows - but noticing is the first step!
- Leaky - if your horse’s skin is leaking, it’s trying to tell you something. What it’s saying is the big mystery….
Whiskers have a job in the integumentary system!
Don’t forget to inspect your horse’s eyes (they don’t grow back), noses, and mouth. Interestingly enough, a quick peek into your horse’s mouth and gums can give info about how his circulatory system is doing as well as his hydration levels. More about hydration and vital signs!
Please please please call your Veterinarian if you ever find anything weird or new on your horse. Tiny cuts around joints can become big problems, as can swelling of the skin that’s really a tendon issue, as can blisters that indicate a liver problem. Other than that - curry on and enjoy a beautifully groomed horse!
What has your horse's skin told you?