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The Fight Against Flies – Protecting Your Horse

Humans and horses alike suffer from the summertime pests that are flies. From horse flies to horn flies, there’s an entire species of nasty little critters ready to bring discomfort, and even disease, to our equine friends, if not prevented from doing so. With horse flies, eye gnats, and face flies being just a few of the insects out to bite your horse (and maybe even you) this hot season, it’s no surprise that fly prevention options are more vastly available than ever.


Anyone who rides or cares for horses knows the annoyance that flies can bring. Their constant biting keeps tails swishing and hooves stomping all summer long. Beyond this discomfort, flies can be a cause for even more concern. For those like me, whose horses suffer from fly allergies, these little pests spell itchy and bald legs that are hardly fit to step foot in the ring all show season long – not to mention one cranky horse, and a seriously discouraged rider.

As unexpected as it may seem, flies can pose even more major problems for us, and our horses, despite their small size. Beyond the annoyance and itching of those pesky bites, a badly timed one can spell disaster. Countless riders every year are thrown, kicked or otherwise injured as their poor mount objects to unexpectedly being feasted on. What’s more, thanks to their blood-drinking nature, flies are tiny transmitters of disease. We’ve all heard of West Nile Virus, but how about Pigeon Fever, Swamp Fever, or even Equine Anthrax? Flies can pass any number of these to our horses, sometimes their riders, if not kept at bay.

So with summer rolling around again, and the bugs gathering in their masses, it’s time to sit down, read up, and then get those flies under control.


Police the Paddock

To begin to reduce the number of flies that use your horse as a buffet while he’s in the paddock, a great place to start is the paddock itself. One of the most effective ways to control the population of flies in any area is to pick up the muck. Regular poop picking not only helps prevent overgrazing and worm infestation, but also avoids attracting even more flies to your horse’s environment. In a perfect world, the paddock would be cleaned out every day. Realistically, even having everyone at the barn come down one day per month and to spend the afternoon clearing whatever they can, helps.
horse-paddockIt is also important to make sure your horse has somewhere to go to escape the flies – your paddock shelter isn’t just for rain. In the hotter months, your horse can go inside to find shade, and some level of reprieve from the flies, which means making sure some form of shelter is available (and preferably clean), is important.

To go one step further, leaving your horses a pest repelling paddock lick such as the Rabon fly block, can also help to lower your fly population. The active ingredient in these lick blocks claims to stop the fly life cycle for up to four different species, while the other ingredients are good for your horses overall health.  With no daily action required beyond making sure your horses have access, a fly prevention lick is definitely worth looking into.


Gear Up

Creating a physical barrier between your horse and the flies, is one of the easiest ways to keep the biting insects off.  Almost every equestrian store sells a range of fly gear, including blankets, hoods, leg wraps, masks and fringes. Each of these can stop flies from getting to the skin, which eliminates your horse as their next meal, though this kind of equipment is not always totally straightforward and without challenges of its own.

Fly blankets are usually made of an extremely tight woven, thin mesh. They often extend all the way up the horse’s neck and even include a specially tailored piece to cover the belly. The idea is that this overall coverage means the flies simply can’t get to the majority of your horse’s body. In most cases this works, though there are a few equines who are the exception, or take exception, to this strategy.

When buying a fly blanket, so many are available that the choice can seem overwhelming, and in a way, it is. In the heat of the summer, it is important to consider your horse’s comfort – which is why you bought the blanket in the fist place, right? But choose the wrong blanket and you end up with a horse who’s fly-bite free but spends all day hot, sweaty and baking in the sun – not so great. Most of the better-made blankets are designed to allow maximum airflow, are UV resistant, and made specifically to reflect the heat and keep your horse cool while protected.

That said, if you’re trying your horse out with a fly blanket for the first time, buying a high tech, and likely expensive blanket, might also not be the best plan of action. Remember that turn out sheet that got torn to shreds last winter? These fly blankets are made of mesh, and are destined to fail when even 1200 denier polyester couldn’t succeed. Whether you have a young horse, or just a horse that loves to play and scratch on the fence, most fly blankets don’t hold up well. For that reason, it’s a good idea not to spend a fortune until you know how long you can expect the item to last, though you still need a product that is functional and will keep your horse cool when he’s turned out in the sun.

After you finally find that blanket that’s just right for your horse, then cross your fingers and throw it on him, the physical barriers available for fly protection don’t end there. Anybody who’s been around horses has seen the tiny little flies that seem to love to crawl around their eyes, particularly in spring or the hours before the sun is at its peak. These are eye gnats, a particularly nasty set of insects who love to feed on blood and pus. Though they don’t actively bite, their spiked mouthpieces open up your horses skin to a number of diseases, as well as being painful and prone to leaving tiny scars.

One of the best ways to keep your horse free of eye gnats, is to cover their eyes. This can be accomplished by either a fly mask, or fly fringe. Fly fringes come in all shapes and sizes and can be fitted onto a halter or bridle, or even come attached to elastic and ready to be worn alone for the paddock. The fringe runs across a web browband, while numerous strings hang down and brush across the horse’s face and the area around the eyes, shooing the flies away. Though this works to some extent, we all know those little bugs are persistent, and will come back whenever they can, which could lead to a lot of head shaking for your horse.

A fly mask offers total coverage for your horse’s eyes, and is made from extremely thin, fine woven mesh, which is completely see-through. Some of these masks even cover the eats too, and are usually elasticated with safe velcro closures. Given their nature, these masks keep all manner of insects away from your horses eyes, ears and a good portion of their face. All this makes masks seem like the obvious choice, and in some ways they are, though unfortunately, they too have their own set of potential drawbacks. We’ve all heard the phrase about the bee in the bonnet, how about the fly in the mask? It happens. One little critter gets in there, and your horse is going wild in the field trying to get that thing out, and get the mask off, until they succeed, or you notice and go help. Similarly to the issue with the rugs, these masks are also easily damaged, and if your horse has the Houdini gene, they can be easily rubbed off on a fence or otherwise ditched.

One final product to think about employing into your arsenal of physical pest barriers, are fly leg wraps. Similar to the idea behind the blanket and the mask, these are again made of breathable thin mesh, with safe velcro closures, to keep flies from biting the legs. Many horses like mine who have an insect allergy, or insect induced dermatitis, suffer greatly on their legs, and so, these wraps can be invaluable. Like any boots, they have the potential to slip or rip, though most well made wraps will stay put and help keep the flies off (and the hair on) those usually itchy legs.


Eat Right

Like almost every equine complaint, fly problems too have a range of dedicated supplements that claim to help. Most feed stores sell these supplements, and although the ingredients in each vary, many of them come from the same group that are commonly available throughout. In picking a supplement, a little research goes a long way, as does reading other owner’s reviews, and not just what the company claims a specific product does.
garlic-foodMy favourite natural ingredients for fly supplements are garlic, brewers yeast and flax. Brewer’s yeast is rich in Vitamin B1 – Thiamin. When this is fed, this harmless excess Thiamin is excreted through the skin and gives off a fungal or plant odour to insects, making your horse smell like something to be ignored, rather than a blood buffet for the taking. Garlic is naturally full of sulphur, which when excreted can act as a natural repellent to biting insects, as well as helping to ward off internal parasites too.  Finally, Linseed or Flax, is a great addition to your horses food to help reduce the allergic reaction behind fly bites, as well as giving them a great coat.

When selecting your supplement, remember that no matter how great the ingredients, your horse has to eat the stuff if it has any hope of working. Try to buy a small quantity, or even get a sample, and check your picky eater doesn’t disapprove, before you commit. Never buy anything experimental, or that isn’t available through a reputable feed store.


Spray Down

Perhaps one of the most popular methods of fly control, is fly spray. Today, there are a range of sprays that vary in price, all claiming to be the answer to your equine fly woes. Some equestrians spend ridiculous amounts of money on their own personal ‘miracle’ brand, which they claim keeps the flies off, while others make their fly spray at home and swear by its results.

Me? I sit firmly on the fence. In the last thirteen years, I’ve failed to find any one fly spray that is a god amongst fly-battling men. Sure, some work better than others, but all of them have limited scope. For these sprays to be effective, most need to be applied every 4-6 hours, and realistically, not many owners can keep up with that punishing regime. Even longer lasting fly sprays often don’t work as well as they should, and although they are no doubt very valuable as a tool in your fly fighting arsenal, they should not be the only one.

A few more recent additions to this category include fly gels and even a fly spot on. The gel is great for those hard to get places, around the eyes, ears and genitals of your horse, where a spray would probably earn you a kick in the shins. Please make sure you use a gel that also contains sunscreen – any kind of oil and the baking sun can be a terrible combination, especially on the soft skin around the eyes and muzzle. The fly spot works just like the flea spot on does for dogs and cats. After breaking open the little tube, you apply a spot in the areas clearly illustrated on the diagram, and the liquid is said to be absorbed into the skin where it will keep your horse fly free for up to two weeks.

Though they are a key component, fly sprays, gels and spot on, in my opinion, are not enough to do they job all by themselves, but makeup an important part of the overall defence.


Winning the War

There’s no guaranteed formula, and for every horse and every owner, the fight against flies is different. All of the options covered above can act as valuable tools in your bug busting toolbox. Whether it’s blankets and spray, or supplements and paddock care, any change you make has the potential to impact the flies that plague your horse’s paddock, no matter how small. For that, he’s sure to thank you.


By Emma Doherty – Luna Sport Horses

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