The Phantom Itch

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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I was hoping to start 2016 with a clean slate, leave all the hiccups of last year in the dust, and get back into a better pattern with the horses. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how things have gone.

Right before we left for our holiday travels, Steen came up itchy. And I mean really, really, really inexplicably itchy. Like, you basically could not touch him without inducing “I need to scratch so bad” spasms that involved contorting in half and nearly knocking himself over.

Our vet looked at him, gave him a few big shots, and prescribed antibiotics and antihistamines. We then had to leave for our holiday travels, and were gone for two weeks. Our barn owner gave Steen his meds while we were gone. She seemed to think he improved in our absence, but we got back about two days after the meds ran out and I was dismayed to find he was just as itchy as before, if not more so.

I called our vet only to discover he’s having health issues and isn’t working. My barn owner did manage to get in touch with him via text. He prescribed two more weeks of the antihistamines at a double dose. It then took me over a week to actually get my hands on the meds (that’s a long, massively frustrating story that’s not even worth telling). In the meantime, Steen rubbed large patches bare on his haunches.

At this point I set about eliminating everything that could have changed recently from his life/diet/environment. Unfortunately, that wasn’t very many things. Steen has been at this same barn for seven years, eating the same hay (which they grow themselves in surrounding pastures), living in the same lot, and rarely leaving the premises. The one thing I did do was wash our winter blankets with a different detergent this year. (Rambo blanket wash.) Ironically, in years passed I always just used the same stuff we use to wash our own clothing.

Friday the 15th, I put him in a brand new blanket. The next day, we finally got the new meds and started those. We visited the barn morning and night for two weeks to give him the pills. He was still itchy. Very, very itchy.

The blanket swap.

Things I knew at this point:

  • his blood work came back normal
  • he had a clear fecal shortly before the itching started
  • there are no other itchy horses in our herd or at our barn
  • he has no symptoms that match up with any parasite known to the internet, other than itching
  • his environment and diet have not changed in years
  • antihistamines might help a little, but not much
  • dexamethasone does not help
  • the itching is everywhere, but he reacts strongest when touched on the hocks and in the groin area
  • his appetite is good, temp is normal, and his overall attitude and energy level are good
  • his skin is not dry or flaky
  • there is is no rash, no bumps or lumps, no swelling, no physical indicator of a problem
  • his coat is shiny and healthy and full, other than the areas he’s rubbed off

I got in touch with another vet, but she was on vacation. In sending her an email about his case, I wrote up a detailed timeline of everything that had happened. Reading it, I became increasingly convinced it had to be the blanket. I found a couple forum posts about people whose horses reacted to detergents and blanket washes. Several said it took months for the horse to fully recover.

I couldn’t bathe him because it was too cold and I couldn’t turn him out without a blanket for the same reason. (Steen, never inclined to carry much padding to begin with, drops weight at an alarming rate when not blanketed in harsh conditions.) So I had little choice. I kept waiting.

Fortunately, on Wednesday the weather took a turn for the warmer. I pulled Steen’s blanket. He’s been naked for a few days, and already he seems much better. Today I was actually able to groom him without causing him to shake and shudder and tie himself in knots.

Fingers crossed we’re on our path to an itch free future. After seven weeks of dealing with this, I’m hesitant to believe it’s really over. I suppose time will tell.

A photo posted by Robin (@aridingrobin) on

Horseback Hours YTD: 8:10

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~The South Dakota Cowgirl~

It is my experience that even horses that don't seem to grow a lot of winter hair, will, if allowed to do so. It may take a year for them to adjust, but they can and will. My big yellow horse came from Texas and his first winter, I was sure he'd freeze because he didn't get very fuzzy. Now he's one of the fuzziest ones! 😉 You just have to give those horses that lose weight in the winter access to extra groceries. In my experience (and we blanket nothing on the place), they will adapt. I'm pretty sure… Read more »

7 years ago

Wow, that's quite an adventure. In my limited experience, full-body itching has generally been a food allergy. But in this case the detergent is a likely candidate, since it covers most of his body.

Anyway, good luck! Hope Steen is itch-free soon!