Do Hairless Horses Exist? 

September 27, 2022
Blue-eyed Cremello akhal-teke horse in dark stable background

There are some curious creatures out there! Cats with missing tails, dogs with extra toes, a spotted zebra – these unusual-looking animals are all around us. When it comes to hairless horses, do these wonders only gallop with unicorns and other mythical creatures in the fantasy world, or might you spot one with your own eyes?  

Do Hairless Horses Exist? Yes, the Hairless horses are rare, but they’re real. A hairless horse breed doesn’t exist, but horses from various breeds can be born hairless or lose their hair later in life. The most common reason for full hairlessness is an inherited disorder. Other hair-loss triggers include health and skin conditions.   

A living, breathing, hairless horse isn’t something you see every day. These unusual animals are few and far between. But they’re not a myth! Let’s dig deeper to discover different types of oh-so-smooth horses, why they don’t have hair, and whether being hair-free comes with any perks or pitfalls.  

Are Some Horses Hairless? 

It’s a fact: hairless horses do indeed exist in real life. But they’re as scarce as they’re striking.  

People have told stories of elusive hairless horses for decades. One of the early sightings was traced back to 1838, in New York of all places (…even a horse covered in hair turns heads in New York City these days!). 

Since then, hairless horses have been spotted and photographed worldwide. These animals have always been a remarkable sight – so much so that they were carted off to fairs for spectators to marvel at.  

Here’s a handful of hairless horses from around the globe that made it into newspapers and magazines throughout history: 

  • South Africa, 1860. A completely hairless (and follicle-free) horse with blue-grey skin was found grazing among quaggas at the tip of Africa. This horse was captured and shipped off to London to be exhibited. 
  • Australia, 1872. A horse without hair (not even eyelashes) and black skin was spotted and shown off around Australia and New Zealand.  
  • The United States, 1875. A few years later, a black-skinned, hairless horse was discovered in Kentucky.  
  • The United States, 1905. Another hairless horse was found on American soil. This one was spotted in Ohio and displayed for people to gawk at. Press releases promoting the exhibition described her as having an elephant-like tail and features.   
  • Japan, 1931. A hairless horse lived in Tokyo’s Ueno Park Municipal Zoo.  

A hairless horse that captured the world’s attention more recently is Harry, the hairless Percheron from Texas. Harry was born in Dallas in 1991 with patches of hair on his body but lost it all (except for bits of his mane and tail) when he was a foal.  

He was a Percheron horse, a breed favored for its strength and sweet nature. This breed is also known for having thick, often wavy manes – making Harry’s hairlessness all the more mind-boggling.  

People ooh and aah at hairless horses because they’re an oddity. There’s no such thing as a specific breed of hairless horses, but now and then, one comes into the world.  

Why Are Some Horses Hairless?  

So, we know these bald beauties have lived among us for at least 180 years, but what’s behind their missing hair?  

While a horse without hair is a special sighting and makes for a good story, healthy horses should have hair. Hairlessness in horses is usually a warning sign that something is wrong.  

There are 7 main reasons horses have no hair or experience hair loss: 

  • Reason 1: An inherited disorder 
  • Reason 2: A health condition  
  • Reason 3: A skin condition  
  • Reason 4: Selenium toxicity  
  • Reason 5: A nutritional deficiency 
  • Reason 6: Hot weather 
  • Reason 7: An unknown cause  

Let’s explore each reason… 

hairless horse in paddock

Reason 1: An Inherited Disorder  

The reason for complete hairlessness in horses scientists understand best is a gene mutation passed down from certain horses to their offspring. The gene mutation stops the outermost layer of skin from forming properly and interferes with hair growth.  

This inherited disorder, which scientists call naked foal syndrome (NFS), mainly affects Akhal-Teke horses. The Akhal-Teke breed is likely vulnerable to NFS because it lacks genetic diversity. 

Akhal-Teke horses usually flaunt a radiant coat, but those with NFS are born without hair – no hair on their body, no mane, and no tail hair. They also often experience symptoms such as abnormal teeth and digestive problems.  

Reason 2: A Health Condition  

Health problems can make horses’ hair fall out.  

Anything from an underactive thyroid to autoimmune disease can trigger shedding, leaving horses either partially or fully bare.  

Even pregnancy, lactation, serious illness, or fever can cause hair loss.  

Reason 3: A Skin Condition  

Here’s a round-up of skin conditions that can make horses lose their hair:  

  • Itching skin. Biting gnats, horn flies, lice, and mange mites can make horses itch like crazy. The horses then rub their bodies against structures, trees, or the ground to relieve the irritating sensation. Particularly bad itches can cause horses to rub themselves so vigorously that they lose patches of hair on their bodies, make their manes go bald, and turn their tails from bushy to bare.  
  • Bacterial, parasitic, or fungal infections. Bacterial, parasitic, or fungal (called ringworm because they often create a ring-shaped rash) skin infections can damage or destroy the hair shaft or follicle, resulting in hair loss.  
  • Skin scald. Unhygienic environments can make horses lose the hair on their legs. When a horse’s living area is contaminated by urine or manure, its skin can become chronically inflamed and hairless.  
  • Springtime shedding. Some horses lose large patches of hair in the spring. This hair loss is fleeting; new hair starts filling the bald areas about a month later.  
  • Sarcoids. This is a harmless form of horse skin cancer that results in hair loss.  
  • Trauma. Skin injuries and burns are frequently accompanied by hair loss.  

Reason 4: Selenium Toxicity  

Things horses consume can cause hair loss. One of these is too much selenium. 

Selenium is a mineral essential to horse health, as it helps their cells work as they should. However, it’s only good in moderation.  

The problem arises in areas where the soil is incredibly rich in selenium. Plants growing in this soil can contain high levels of this mineral. Then when horses munch these plants, they take in too much selenium, leading to tail and mane hair loss. Cracked hooves, lameness, extreme mouth-watering, difficulty breathing, and muscle tremors are more signs of this potentially fatal toxicity. 

Reason 5: A Nutritional Deficiency  

It’s not only a nutritional excess that can cause hair loss but also a deficiency. 

A protein deficiency is most commonly the culprit. But vitamins like A, E, and B7 and minerals such as copper, zinc, sulfur, and iron are also important for keeping hair full and healthy.  

Reason 6: Hot Weather 

Soaring temperatures during the summer months can make horses sweat profusely, and this can trigger hair loss.  

When it’s hot day after day and horses are always sweaty, their hair follicles can stay moistened by the sweat until they soften and ultimately drop their hairs.  

Sweat also causes hair loss in another way: its high protein and salt content can irritate horses’ skin, making them scratch frantically (by rubbing themselves against anything that might stop the itch). The furious scratching then causes hair loss.  

Reason 7: An Unknown Cause  

Some cases of horse hairlessness baffle scientists because they have no clear explanation.  

Harry is one of these cases. Vets examined him and investigated, but no one could ever figure out what made him lose his hair and why it didn’t grow back.  

What Does Hairlessness Mean In Horses?  

Unlike hairless cat and dog breeds (there are 10 of each), no horse breed is supposed to have no hair. The lack of hair is often a sign of health trouble.  

Here’s how different types of hairlessness could influence horses’ well-being: 

Hairlessness Caused By Naked Foal Syndrome 

Total hairlessness caused by NFS is particularly bad news. Horses with NFS usually don’t live beyond a few weeks, with only a few living to see in their second year. Digestive problems are the most common reason foals die within weeks of being born, and older foals tend to experience such excruciating pain in their feet that they must be euthanized.  

Mother running with hairless foal at side

Researchers want to stop this tragic disease in its tracks, so they’ve developed a test that can pick up carriers of NFS and prevent the disorder from being passed on. 

Hair Loss That Occurs Later In Life 

Horses that start hairy and then shed either in patches or completely might be experiencing an underlying health issue like a skin condition, unbalanced hormones, or autoimmune disease. Most of these health issues are simple to treat, and once they’re under control, the hair returns. It takes about 3 to 6 weeks for the hair to grow back, but some horses’ hair grows faster, and some slower. 


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Mysterious Hairlessness 

Then there are those extremely rare hairless horses like harry who don’t let missing hair stop them from living full lives.  

Although these exceptional creatures can stay healthy into adulthood, they need special care. These horses don’t have hair to protect their skin, making them vulnerable to chapping and scaly, dry, inflamed skin. They’re also at risk of sunburn in the summer and lung infections in the winter.  

Harry’s owner, Suzi Mathies, put a lot of effort into keeping him healthy and comfortable.  

She fed him a high-fat, low-carb diet (think: fat-rich horse pellets drenched in cups of oil); dressed him in a hood with ears, specially made pants, and blankets in the winter; slathered sunscreen on him in the summer; and smoothed ointment onto his legs to protect against chapping. She even set up a fan and misting system in his stall to keep him cool on very hot days! 

Conclusion  

It might be hard to get your head around the idea of a completely smooth horse. No glossy coat, no bushy tail, and no lustrous mane. But hairless horses have existed all over the world for decades. These creatures aren’t the norm; there’s no hairless horse breed. Throughout history, hairless horses have been from breeds that usually have hair – even lots of it, as with Percherons! 

Hairlessness in horses often warns of an underlying problem like an inherited disorder, health condition, skin irritation or condition, selenium toxicity, or a nutritional deficiency. But now and then, a healthy horse happens to have no hair. If you’re lucky enough to see a tame one, stroke it gently, and don’t be surprised if it feels like you’re caressing a warm leather couch!  

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I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here



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