Sweet itch, alopecia and me

Sweet itch, alopecia and me

I was recently asked, ‘if I was a horse how would I advertise myself’? I think this slightly sums me up.

15.2 (more like 13.2 but I like to give myself more height credit than I deserve!) Chestnut mare, full breeding recorded but didn’t take after the mare or stallion. Possible split personality - lives like a dream most days - do not put a body part over the stable door on bad days. Won’t x ray (two dodgy hocks and a funky back!) Usually sound but needs regular physio, special shoes and painkillers. Likes to pretend to be a show pony - do not let any judge I don’t like on board and definitely do not ask me to jump anything.

As amazing as I sound, I have one major flaw - the dreaded sweet itch and not the ‘pop a rug on me and hope for the best kind’. The ‘I can’t be left alone in the field or I will rub every blade of hair out’ kind. Sweet itch, also known as Culicoides Hypersensitivity, is a skin disease caused by an allergic reaction to midge bites. Affected horses and ponies are sensitive to the irritants in midge saliva, which causes a localised irritation within the skin - usually resulting in hair loss. This - to some people - would make me a very hard sale and very little point in buying me!

Real life Muireann has the human form of sweet itch - alopecia areata. This form of alopecia is an autoimmune disorder which often results in patches of hair loss. The condition occurs when white blood cells attack the cells in hair follicles, causing them to shrink and dramatically slow down hair production. It is unknown precisely what causes the body’s immune system to target hair follicles in this way.

While scientists are unsure why these changes occur, it seems that genetics are involved as alopecia areata is more likely to occur in a person who has a close family member with the disease. Despite what many people think, there is very little scientific evidence to support the view that alopecia areata is caused by stress. I, however - which wouldn’t be like me - am a slight exception to the rule! I do not have anyone in my family who also has alopecia or severe immune disorders. My alopecia is ruled by my mental health. It has been since I discovered my first patch at the age of 15. When my body can no longer cope with the stress, I put it under my patches increase. I am, despite what my 15-year-old self would think, very lucky. I have never lost my eyebrows or eyelashes and my hair generally only falls out in smaller patches. I have lost my hair from the front of my head and the majority of the back, but this can all be covered.

Now, you might be reading this thinking - what on earth had this got to do with horses! My horses are my therapy, my escape and my counselors - in short they help to keep me sane and my hair in the right place! Yes - they might drive me to the brink occasionally, but my horses are my safe place. I honestly believe that horses have a huge effect on my state of mind. Have you ever tried to ride a horse and worry about paying the next bill? It just doesn’t work. For that time on that horse - they are your main priority and I think a piece of my brain needs that to help cope with day-to-day life.

I am in the fortunate position that I not only get to work with horses on a daily basis, I also get to keep some of my own. Even to walk out to the field to do daily checks is a way to help clear my head. It is a very important part of my day and one which I actually look forward to.

While I fully understand that lessons and coaching are a vital part of the learning experience on your horse, I am also fully aware that when you are on board, it is you and your horse against it all. This gives me a sense of confidence that I rarely feel off a horse - until now.
Equitas is my tribe and my confidence builders - they have created a space to encourage everyone to blossom and grow. I have been lucky to be surrounded by amazing people in my life but Equitas has brought out a side to me I never knew existed - I can’t wait to see what the future holds. There are many people to speak to about alopecia but please know I’m always good for a chat!

So remember - sometimes it is worth it to take the chance on the sweet itch pony!

Here’s to making new friends!

Muireann O Toole Brennan

Muireann O Toole Brennan

Head of Media and co founder at Equitas. I currently have four horses and compete three. 2024 is going to be a big season!
Carlow, Ireland