The summer assault on your horse
It often seems, in the summer months, that the entire insect kingdom is out to make your horse’s life a misery. From stableflies biting at his ankles and making him stamp his feet, and mosquitoes sucking blood, to horseflies driving him into a frenzy, just by their mere presence in the vicinity.
I saw a program on the Discovery Channel about the migrations of the caribou in Canada. During the course of the year, the caribou migrate a total of 6,000 miles. This whole migration is driven, in part, by the millions of mosquitoes that hatch in that area. The mosquitoes, quite literally, drive the caribou to distraction. Of course, the caribou have the luxury of having all those millions of acres to roam in. The average horse in its two acre pasture is not so lucky.
However, the conscientious horse owner should be able to, if not eliminate these nuisances, at least minimize them.
The two-pronged attack
As a horse owner, or barn manager, you should prepare your assault on the insect world in two ways. Firstly to eliminate, as far as is possible, their breeding grounds. Secondly, to protect your horse, or horses, from those insects that are still around.
The most prevalent insect pest around horses is the common fly (bluebottles, in England). They lay their eggs in horse manure, so it makes good sense to remove the droppings from every horse’s stable as often as possible. This should be done regularly throughout the day, especially for those horses who spend most of their time stabled. Receptacles for collecting the droppings should not be kept in or near the stables as this defeats the purpose. Mosquitoes, also very prevalent in some areas, breed in water. So anything which will collect water, such as old tires, feed tubs, buckets, etc. should not be left lying around.
If your horse is out at pasture, the best way to lessen the fly problem is to regularly remove the droppings from the field. I have fond memories of when I was looking after some horses for a family in England. The horses’ owner and myself would regularly go arond the pastures with rubber gloves on, picking up each pile of manure and flinging it into the nearby wheelbarrow whilst singing “If They Could See Me Now”. Now, I’m not suggesting you do this – the rake you use to clean your horse’s stall will work just as well!
In some climates, such as here in Texas, where the sun beats down on the pasture all day in summer, it can be very beneficial to drag the pasture with a harrow, or even just a heavy piece of lumber attached to your truck or tractor by chains. This has the effect of breaking up the manure, allowing the sun to dry it out quicker, thereby making it less attractive to flies. I do not agree, however, with those who advocate taking the droppings removed from the stables and spreading that on the pasture too. I much prefer that the droppings be collected and composted in a neat (and I do mean neat, not spreading insidiously toward the barn), covered manure pile. Covering the pile will have the double benefit of keeping the flies at bay, while helping the composting process underneath.
Other battle tactics
There are several ways that you can make minor changes to your stable routine and make things more comfortable for your horse. Many insect pests are at their peak activity during daylight hours, when temperatures are warmest. For horses turned out during the day this can only mean a day of torture as they shake their heads and swish their tails to dislodge the biting insects. One way to avoid this is to turn your horse out during the night or early in the morning before the temperatures warm up. Of course, if you live in an area with a high prevalence of mosquitoes, you may want to re-think this. One evening at an outdoor barbecue, swatting furiously at mosquitoes biting your arms and legs, will tell you that it will be no fun at all for your horse to be turned out at night. Your routine will have to depend on where you are located and which insect pests you are dealing with.
Once you have done your best to minimize the insect problem, and have tailored your turn-out routine as necessary, you may still find that you need to do more to protect your horse. You will notice if you watch horses in a field that often they stand side by side, head to tail, each gently swishing their tails, keeping the flies at bay. Fly repellents are a very useful addition to this natural horse behavior. There are many brands of fly repellents, but they can basically be divided into two types- those containing either natural pyrethrins, derived from plants (or the synthetic version) or chemical preparations. They are designed to either be sprayed or wiped directly onto the horse or used in a barn-wide spray system. The ones that are used directly on the horse may be oil-based or water-based and you can buy them either ready-to-use or in concentrate form, to be diluted with water. You can also buy roll-on repellents for use on the horse’s face (many horses object to the use of sprays around their heads), or repellent ointments to keep flies away from cuts and other injuries. Always follow the directions on the label as regards to usage and diluting strengths, etc.
Many people prefer to use just a citronella-based herbal spray, rather than an insecticide and some swear by Avon’s Skin-So-Soft as a useful repellent. I have a piece of advice for anyone thinking about using Skin-So-Soft. While it is an excellent product, be sure and dilute it correctly. The one and only time I used it on my horse, he was absolutely covered in hives the next day! He has extremely sensitive skin and I had mixed it too strong for him.
Personally, all I use on my horse is a fly repellent, applied regularly. However, there are many different types of horse clothing designed to protect your horse from insect pests. The first of these is the fly mask. Made of mesh and available in different designs, from those that cover only the eyes, to those that cover the ears and eyes, these are very useful in keeping pesky flies away from your horse’s sensitive face. Make sure that it fits your horse well and that the mesh doesn’t collapse and irritate his eyes. You can also buy a simple fringe which attaches to your horse’s bridle, for use while being ridden, and acts as an extension of his forelock, moving when he moves his head and dislodging the flies from his face. Very popular nowadays are the crocheted ear nets, with fringes on the front that act in the same way.
The fly sheet is designed in the same shape as a turnout blanket, with leg straps and surcingle to keep it in place. It is made of a fine but strong mesh and keeps the flies off your horse’s body. A benefit of the fly sheet is that it can also protect your horse’s coat against fading in the summer sun.
Relatively new on the market are mesh leg wraps, which are designed to keep away those pesky stableflies that drive your horse into a stamping frenzy. These are lined with fleece, top and bottom, to keep out crawling insects.
Hopefully, by using all, or a selection of these options, you and your horse will be able to survive the assault of the insect kingdom in relative comfort.