This skin condition is also known by such names as Scratches, Greasy Heel, and Mud Fever. Greasy Heel isn't a very glamorous affliction, but it most certainly can be a royal pain in the trainer's side. There is not a racing barn that hasn't experienced this thorn while prepping their young horses, usually during the wet Spring months. Scratches seems to go hand in hand with cooler, wet weather, and it is mostly seen in 2 and 3 year olds. It seems that many times, older horses have built up an immunity to this condition and become less affected in later life.
Causes: A respected Veterinary Equine text of 1972 states that the cause of Scratches is unknown. Now at the beginning of the new century, it is believed that Dermatophilus congolensis is the major organism involved with this dermatitis. Dermatophilus congolensis is one of those organisms which can't easily be indexed. It has both bacterial and fungal like characteristics. It prefers areas which are non-oxygenated, wet, and it may be attracted to carbon dioxide environments. Dermatophilus congolensis form motile flagellated zoospores which can be released and transmitted from horse to horse and even to humans. This bacterium is said to be a natural inhabitant of horse hair coats and the soils-always present, waiting for the right conditions. Personally, I find this a little too simplistic; yet, it will have to suffice for now.
Symptoms: Mud fever is often observed first in the hollow of the heel but soon spreads over an increasing area of the heel, pastern, and ankle--if left unattended. Initial signs involves inflammation with the hairs standing at attention. The infected areas later become hot and crusty with epidermal cracks and scabs of varying sizes, . Hair often starts falling out and there may be a watery secretion. Lameness can be present, certainly tenderness to the touch. Not a pleasant condition for man nor beast!
Treatment: Depending on its severity, a number of herbs may offer relief. Herbal medicine is usually most advantageous as a preventive, in the very early stages of an infection, or in chronic conditions. On the other hand, modern Veterinary medicine shines when combating acute, overwhelming pathology. Each has its place in treating race horses and neither should be lightly dismissed. Our job as trainers is to bring our animals back to normal health as swiftly as possible. If your case of Mud Fever seems to be overwhelming your horse's body, then modern antibiotics may be the way to go. Dr. Soring who has a racetrack practice in Iowa was the first to recommend a topical solution of Gentocin (Gentamicin Sulfate) and tribrissen to me in the early 1990s. I was a bit dubious of his claims, but soon became pleasantly surprised how nicely this drug combination cured infected heels. You have no idea the trials, I have gone through trying to produce a remedy for cracked heels in the previous 15 years of training race horses. I have tried all of the traditional shedrow cures with little success. Usually this condition would have to run its course as you would allow a common cold. In the past, before my herbal knowledge, I have meticulously washed and cleaned heels after morning work, used about every type of commercial salve known to man, tried clay poultices, bandaged daily-all to no avail. The Gentocin/tribrissen topical was the first veterinary preparation that finally brought me some degree of quick cure after all of these years. However, the below herbal suggestions should bring an equal quick response to this infection as well.
We have two objectives in treating this dermatitis. One is to boost the horse's immune system and, two, to kill the infective organisms involved. There are several immune enhancing herbs which can be given internally to accomplish the first objective: Echinacea, Astragalus, Bupleurum, Melilotus, Pau d'arco, Poke Root, Withania, Licorice Root, Stillingia Root, Andrographis, and Burdock. The anti-microbial herbs which may be of use, externally to kill or slow down the infection: Smooth Sumac, Pau d'arco, Poke Root, Osage Orange leaves, Olive Leaves, Burdock, Garlic, St.John's Wort, Clove, Yellow Dock, Sarsaparilla Root, Black-eyed Susan, Chaparral, Tea Tree Oil, Barberry, and Lomatium.
Several things should be kept in mind when fighting Dermatophilus congolensis. One, since it is both fungi and bacteria-like, herbs which are both anti-fungal and anti-bacterial should be preferred. Two, this organism seems to favor wet, non-oxygenated sites. Three, the Dermatophilus needs a weakened/damaged skin structure in order to become and remain established. Thus, the trainer should keep the infected heel and areas as dry as possible, as open to the air as possible, and as clean as possible. He should return the skin to as normal a condition as possible which will promote optimum health and immunity. The cross-use of body brushes, other stable appliances, and fingers should be closely scrutinized and cleansed when these things come in contact with other animals. I would recommend no use of poultices, covering pads, bandages, and salves on infected sites. All of these things would tend to cut off fresh oxygen supplies to the skin's surface. To take this further, the scabs which form as the body's reaction to the organism's toxins should be removed to expose the usually pinkish skin below. This is best done with a warm wash either using a mild anti-microbial soap or a wash with various of the above mentioned anti-microbial herb extracts. A warm water wash will aid in the removal of scabs and clean off track dirt from the morning's work. The areas should subsequently be carefully and rapidly dried after washing. Afterwards, careful use of the fingernail can remove stubborn scabs, too. Once the pinkish skin is exposed, an alcoholic tincture of the external anti-fungal/bacterial herbs can be rubbed into the skin. A DMSO tincture of the herbs can equally be used with efficiency. Apply the tincture of your choice 2-3 times a day, rubbing it into the infected site, followed by air drying.