Ask Horse Journal June 2012

My horse is allergic to bug bites. Last summer, she rubbed her mane and tail off. It quit over the winter and started again in April. My vet had me start her on hydroxyzine twice a day, a special shampoo, and I spray Vetrycin on the irritated areas. This is helping, but it’s time-consuming, undoing each capsule and dumping into wet beet pulp for her to eat. Any other ideas’ Help!

A young rider may learn faster on a well-trained horse.

Contributing Veterinary Editor Grant Miller DVM responds: Thank you for sharing your itchy-horse problem. Your situation is experienced by so many around the country, and it’s definitely an important one.

Beyond the fact that your horse itches out her mane and tail (which takes forever and a day to grow back), pruritis (?itching?) is extremely disruptive to horses because it can cause fatigue, sleep deprivation and even gastric ulcers in some situations.? So itching is not a matter to be taken lightly.

In the case of your horse, I think you and your veterinarian are on the right track with the diagnosis of insect-bite hypersensitivity.? I base this not only on the pattern of distribution of the pruritic areas on your horse, but also on the seasonality associated with the condition.? (However, there are many parts of the country in which insect hypersensitivity can occur all year round; it doesn’t have to occur just in the spring and summer.)

So, why are some horses affected by insects and not others’? Just as some dogs have terrible reactions to flea bites and others don’t, and some people can die from bee stings and others barely react: It all depends on each horse’s immune system and what it is sensitive to.

Unfortunately, your horse is likely sensitive to the Culicoides fly: a very small biting fly that does most of its work at dusk and dawn.? Some people call these flies midges or ?no-seeums? because they are so small, but believe us, they exist!? Your veterinarian has examined your horse, prescribed an anti-histamine (hydroxyzine) which is safe for long-term use, and medicated shampoos and sprays.?THere’s no substitute for a good exam, diagnosis and prescription.

But maybe we can help by providing some ideas on how to avoid the fly bites since prevention is key to making your horse comfortable, lowering your veterinary bills, and making life better for both you and your horse.? Here are some ideas:

  1. Use fly protectant sheets with bellybands and hoods.
  2. Religiously fly spray at dusk and dawn and saturate the base of the tail, mane and underbelly with spray.? These are the areas that biting insects love the most.
  3. Consider incorporating natural fly predators into your manure pile on your farm.? These little wasps can be purchased via mail and they feed on fly larva to reduce fly populations.
  4. Remove standing water and excessive manure from your farm wherever and whenever possible.? If it isn?t possible to clean out water troughs, consider using mosquito rings in them.? These little rings are safe and contain a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, which is completely safe for horses but can kill fly larva.
  5. Salves on your horse’s skin can act as physical barriers to biting insects.? If you aren?t having much luck with the medicated spray, ask your veterinarian about using a wipe-on ointment.

We’ve had success with Calm Coat (, 888-396-0004), Shapley?s M-T-G (, 800-982-2017), C4G Ointment (, 800-248-0330),? Bare Skin Barrier (, 866-821-0374), and Su-Per Healing Ointment (, 888-472-2825).

As for opening up each of the hydroxazine capsules, we feel your pain!? But think of it as a labor of love for your horse.? If some of our preventative measures work for you, you may be able to ask your veterinarian about lowering the dose of hydroxyzine in the future.


I lost 85 pounds on a certain well-advertised diet program, and I wish I could find something similar for my horse. Everything I read says to use a muzzle, which I won?t as I think they’re cruel and dangerous. How much should I really be feeding my 15.2-hand quiet gelding’ He’s getting hay, a little grain and turnout on pasture. I can’t take him off pasture unless I never turn him out. But He’s truly obese, and your April editorial made me think maybe I’m harming him. I know I feel better at a normal weight.

Contributing Veterinary Editor Deb Eldredge DVM responds: First, you need to look at the two primary situations that contribute to weight gain: 1) Diet, as in eating too much (or the wrong things) and 2) Exercise, as in not enough of it.

It sounds like?your gelding should not be getting any grain. Give him a carrot?when the other horses get grain if you feel like he is ?left out.?

You don’t mention his amount of exercise or soundness, but increasing exercise would help, even if it’s as simple as longeing him or even leading him around at the walk for a half hour a day (horses don’t exercise themselves in the field).

For feed, get a weight tape and measure his weight now. While weight tapes generally won?t give you an accurate measure of how many pounds he weighs, they’re excellent for monitoring weight loss in inches. Measure him weekly.

What type of hay do you feed’ Alfalfa has more calories than timothy, so change to grass hay if you’re feeding a legume. You also need to cut back on hay consumption. But don’t cut it by more than 25% of his current caloric intake at a time.? If He’s getting no exercise, slowly whittle his hay down to 1 to 1.5% of his body weight in hay (so a 1,000-lb. horse would get 10 to 15 lbs. of hay per day). If He’s in exercise, go with 1.5% to 2% (15 to 20 lbs.).

Put his hay in a haynet with small holes, that makes him work longer to get the hay out (keeps him busy longer). Be sure you tie it safely, at your horse’s eye level.

For pasture, grass actually has fewer calories than hay, as it’s mostly water. However, your horse can consume a lot of grass in a short amount of time.? Since you don’t want to use a muzzle, you need to somehow restrict his access.

If you have a barn, turn him out in the morning, then give him some grass hay indoors in the afternoon and evening. If you don’t, consider fencing off a small portion of his field to turn it into a ?dry lot,? with minimal to no grass.

Note: The safest time to graze is during the early morning hours when the night temperatures are mild, above 40° F. Sugar and starch levels increase as the grass is exposed to sunlight. And the levels reach a peak in the late afternoon after a sunny day. The grass uses this fuel for itself during the dark hours and by morning, the levels are at their lowest.

I’d also advise you to consider?some bloodwork to look for insulin resistance and ask your veterinarian about a consultation with an equine nutritionist to custom fit a diet for your horse. If you’re willing to pay for it, that’s as close to an ?advertised human weight-loss program? as you can get. And congratulations on your own weight loss!

who’s THE BOSS’

We have a beginner rider who rides our quietest horse, who might also be our smartest horse. After 20 minutes or so of walk-trot, this mare decides that’s enough and begins to back up. We taught the young rider how to get out of that by asking for a circle and sending her walking in a new direction, and, she has been doing well, been winning the battles. Now this mare simply stops and bucks. Well, actually she sort of humps up her back, gives a tiny jump, and dances around, threatening to buck.

Our solution has been to put another rider on the horse, but the mare knows full well not to try anything with that rider and behaves. Do we just continue this and wait until the beginner is capable of riding through the horse’s antics, or is there something else to do’

Performance Editor John Strassburger responds: don’t you? just love how smart horses can be’ Some can so quickly and accurately sense when one rider (or person on the ground) is in control of them and when another person is not. it’s a tribute to their inherent generosity that such a small percentage of horses try to take full advantage of their size and strength.

Basically, your back?s up against the wall until this rider develops the balance, control and confidence to command the mare?s respect. That will require determination and diligence on the rider?s part.

But here are four suggestions to help develop those attributes:

  1. don’t let this rider ride this mare for a period of time?two weeks to a month, depending on how regularly she normally rides. Put a more experienced rider on the mare, someone who can forcibly convince the mare that her behavior is inappropriate while reinforcing the correct behavior. And, at the same time, put this beginner rider on a more generous horse to develop her seat, aids and confidence. Then put them back together, emphasizing to the younger rider that she must ride strongly, with a take-charge attitude.
  2. Try doing a variety of exercises with the mare and the beginner rider. The mare sounds as if sHe’s bored doing nothing but wandering slowly around the ring. Have her walk and trot over poles on the ground and small cavaletti. Make little ?courses? out of the poles, an exercise that will require the rider to steer and to use her aids and will require the mare to think a little bit.
  3. Whenever this rider rides the mare, emphasize making the mare move forward, energetically. Teach her how to tap (not hit) the mare with a dressage whip to re-enforce her driving leg aids. Have her perform frequent transitions, to help the rider learn how to use her leg to send the horse forward and to remind the mare of the correct response to those aids.
  4. Teach the rider how to ?spin? the horse if she balks as you?ve described. This is an extension of the turning solution you?ve been employing. Have her spin the mare in as small a circle as possible (especially kicking or pushing with her outside leg around the circle) before urging the mare forward, out of the circle. She can make two or three tiny circles.

The circle should be basically a pivot on the hind legs, almost a slow-motion reining spin. Most horses are surprised by suddenly being spun around, giving the rider a chance to gain an advantage and get a positive reaction to their driving aids to resume going forward.

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