Horse chronically scratching up his face, help!


I got a thoroughbred gelding about 6 months ago- when I bought him his face was all scratched up, his old owner said he had run through trees in the pasture and that’s why. The bigger scratches have healed, but he actually seems to chronically scratch his face on purpose, particularly his cheek bones, getting mild new cuts quite frequently. It has continued even now that fly season is completely gone. He has no other skin issues and does not scratch himself anywhere else. I love everything else about him, but this is very frustrating- he is a prelim level horse also doing mid level dressage but I’m embarrassed to take him to shows with his face looking like that. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to have a vet look at him for it, but wanted to pick everybody’s brains, Things I’ve already tried that have not worked :

-numerous topical ointments for itch relief
-putting up safe scratching mats on his stall wall so that he doesn’t itch his face on the stall bars or wood
-never wears halter other than for being led to and from paddock
-anatomic bridle, fleece on cheek pieces
-I gently curry his face/wipe his face down after work with chlorhexidine wipes- this is the only thing I’ve seen a slight improvement with but still doesn’t completely get rid of it
-on a rice bran supplement with high omegas for his skin
-gets ample natural vitamin e through his grain and supplements
-on low grain diet/very low nsc grain. I changed the grain once to see if that would help, it didn’t. I don’t think getting rid of grain all together would be possible, he is somewhat of a hard keeper and is in hard work (he does get free choice hay overnight and an enormous amount of soaked alfalfa cubes, but when I’ve tried lowering his grain anymore than what it currently is (5 qt a day split into 3 feedings) he will drop weight.

Thanks in advance!


I’d check his teeth. Hooks or points might catch inside his cheeks & make him want to rub.

I have a horse who reacts to fly bites by rubbing.
Only on his neck, but he rubs on fence posts, stall doorframe, ANYWHERE he can & ends up with teeny raw spots.
I use Bag Balm or Corona dotted on & it seems to help the spots heal.


He had his teeth done in august, no issues found, sorry forgot to mention that

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No advice other than to comment that it’s probably time for the vet to try a trial of antihistamine and a sinus flush. Should be pretty inexpensive. Please keep us updated!


Is he out with other horses? The two I have now play occasionally violent face tag & the shorter, slower one has a rather scratched up face right now…

He is out with other horses and they do play so I imagine some of the scratches are from that, but he has symmetrical scratches on both cheekbones that he keeps doing so I don’t think those would be from the other horses.

Planning on having the vet out, sinus flush is a good idea, this summer he did have some ongoing discharge from one nostril but it’s been gone for the last few months. He doesn’t have any breathing issues. I’m worried about antihistamines as I don’t know the regulations for showing under those, but will ask the vet.

It’s super odd, I’ve dealt with plenty of skin issues but it’s so weird that the rest of his skin is fine.

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Does he rub his face on his legs? Are his chestnuts hard and sharp/ jagged? I guess he could wear a breakaway halter with sheepskin on the cheeks.

For USEF, antihistamines, if prescribed by your vet, are allowed with a medication report form. Although you have to stop for 24 hours before the competition. My horse was on cetirizine (Zyrtec) for a while for respiratory issues. The USEF drugs & medication people are pretty helpful if you have questions.


I second considering the sinuses. My mini was doing this scratching right before he had a massive sinus infection which required surgery. He probably had a undectected minor infection for awhile and was uncomfortable, but he had no drainage/smell/temp or other symptoms until it blew up on him.


Not to scare you but I had a horse like this, probably worse (he needed stitches twice.) As time went on it was clear he was kind of a variant of a head shaker. Although he didn’t actually head shake too much but he would violently rub his head on things including the ground.

Just something to keep an eye on. I echo others and say checking the teeth and maybe his sinuses would be a start.

I do think building sometimes just get bit up a little more on their faces too. It’s a game sometimes.

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We had one similar to this. His owner was diligent and tried everything. She had a couple of vets look at him with recommendations for topical treatments. The third vet who looked at him gave him 2 doses of Exceed. Gone for good. Hope this helps…


He never wears a halter other than for 2 min a day to lead him for turning him in and out, doesn’t wear it in turnout or in stall and I don’t crosstie him.

I haven’t seen him rub it on his legs, mostly have seen him do it on the wood/stall bars. It’s an old barn so some of the wood is getting a bit splintery, I’ve tried to cover as much as I can in his stall and even sanded some of it but he can still irritate his skin with it

Thanks will def have the vet out to look at his sinuses and possibly do antihistamines.

Sinuses make sense…I’ve been thinking of it more as a skin issue and tried all the treatments for that with no luck, so obviously it’s not his skin


In addition to sinuses and antihistamines, I’d have the vet do a skin cytology to rule out a fungal or bacterial infection on the skin.

I keep coming back to his having ``run through trees." Is there ANY possibility that thorns, bark slivers or any similar substance became embedded?


rice bran is higher in omega 6, lower in omega 3. I would replace that with 1 or more sources of Omega 3, whether it’s flax or chia, or an oil like flax oil, camelina, W3 (KER, I think) or anything else along those lines. Marine-based Omega 3 oils are better absorbed than plant-based, because the plant-based O3 has to go through a conversion process that marine-based doesn’t have to. BUT, that doesn’t mean plant-based isn’t totally ok, and it’s cheaper too so you can afford to feed a little more most of the time.

what grain and supplements? Most grains use max 50/50 natural vs synthetic Vit E, many use all synthetic. Same with supplements. Unless things say “natural vitamin E” or “d-alpha tocopherol”, assume it’s synthetic

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Poulin grain (New England brand), they specifically state natural vitamin E on the label and have guaranteed amounts, he is over the recommended daily amount for a horse his size/his work. He will not eat any oil and is very picky about supplements but I did try him on high levels of chia seeds for several months and it did not improve the face scratching. I’m really doubtful anything in his diet is going to change it.

Thanks though!

The vet came out, didn’t find anything abnormal in his sinuses. She recommended I try him on Zyrtec so that will be the next thing I try

That was before I owned him, since May he’s been out in a pasture without trees. For a while I thought maybe he was still just irritated from the initial scratches from “running through trees” but seeing as it’s been 7 months I don’t think that’s possible?

Going to try antihistamines first but if it doesn’t work out will do a skin panel on him. I’ve tried various anti fungal stuff with it and hasn’t helped :confused: