Preventing Sunburn in Horses

Updated June 8, 2023
A western paint horse with a white face and muzzle that sun burns easily.

The sun’s powerful rays can cause horses to get sunburnt, too. And unfortunately, their burn won’t turn into a tan. Horses with light-colored coats and white face markings – especially on the nose or around the eyes – most often experience sunburn. Damage to their sensitive skin should be treated and their skin protected to prevent future sunburn. Follow this three-pronged approach to preventing sunburn on horses:

  1. Use sunscreen
  2. Seek the shade
  3. Cover up with protective clothing

Use Sunscreen

While there are sunscreen products specifically made for horses, many sunscreen products made for humans are just as safe to use on our equine companions.  Sunscreens come in two categories: 

  1. organic absorbers/filters, and
  2. inorganic physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). 

You’ll probably have the most luck not only with a product that includes a chemical from each category but also more than one chemical from the organic category, since it’s hard to find one chemical that blocks UVA1, UVA2 and UVB. 

According to the FDA (the agency that regulates sunscreens) products with an SPF 15 or higher are acceptable. That’s because SPF 15 filters out 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters out 97%, and SPF 50 filters out 98%.

Applying Sunscreen on Your Horse

Remember the rules about applying sunscreen? Apply 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every two hours.  While that schedule might be difficult for most horse owners, be sure to reapply after exercise, rain, bathing, or grooming. 

If your horse is grazing, then he’s probably rubbing off much of the sunscreen on his nose in the grass.  You could try using a brightly colored sunscreen or sunblock so you can see when this happens.  Plus, it will keep your neighbors guessing what color your horse will be sporting each day! Also, some fly sprays and insect repellents include sunscreens and coat conditioners in their formulas for more bang for your buck.

Seek the Shade

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends avoiding exposure to the sun between 10am and 4pm.  Is this something you could do with your horse?  Many people who are trying to prevent their black horses from bleaching keep them in well-ventilated stalls during the day and only turn them out at night. 

At the very minimum, provide an optional break from the sun’s rays in the form sunshade sail covered area or a more solid run-in shed which they can enter or exit as they please. Even planting trees can provide some relief from the sun to help your horse stay cool and comfortable.

Cover Up with Protective Clothing

Paint horse wearing a long fly mask and fly sheet in Florida.

A broad-brimmed straw hat and sunglasses is probably out of the question for your horse, but a long fly mask that cover the muzzle might be a good option! Fly sheets with UV protection and lightweight fly boots can also offer cover for your horse’s skin and coat while shielding him from the bugs.

If your horse tends to play rough or escape from his fly masks in the paddock, try experimenting with different styles from manufacturers. Finding one that stays on your horse will have to do with the size and shape of your horse’s head (as well as his playfulness and antics with the rest of the herd).

A trick for horses that repeatedly remove their fly masks is to put a grazing muzzle on overtop. Although restricting a horse’s pasture intake may lead to a whole new set of problems, with either scenario you may be helping your horse. That is, the grazing muzzle itself may protect him from the sun but if you’d prefer him not be the one wearing it, putting on the most playful or frisky horse in your herd may protect yours from having his fly mask ripped off.

Additional Horse Owner Resources

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.