There is a saying in Upstate New York that our weather goes right from winter to summer. Some residents have said something to the effect of “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes!” which seems to describe this particular spring. We experienced temperatures in the low 20s with snow showers at the beginning of April, followed by sunny days well into the 70s and 80s. And as if they were awakened on cue, the flies were out in droves.

Keeping your horse comfortable during fly season can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not prepared. I was sorry on one 20º April morning as I headed out for a full day and evening. I hadn’t thought to put a fly mask on our mare, and the brisk morning quickly turned into a 70º afternoon, bringing with it a whole host of pesky black flies.

It’s good to have a couple of fly masks for each horse; Morgan loves to roll and will often dislodge her mask, especially when she’s when rubbing her head or neck to relieve the itches and will often come home without it. In addition, having an extra mask allows you to wash one while using another.

When using fly masks, be sure to remove them each night and check for burrs or bits of chaff or other debris that might cause discomfort. Never keep a fly mask on a horse overnight, and check your horse’s eyes and ears closely to make sure there’s no irritation.

There are many types of fly masks; some have ear protection, others are extra-long to protect the muzzle and nose, some offer extra fabric darts around the eyes for comfort and hook & loop straps for a better fit. Some will provide greater UV protection.

You’ll need to measure your horse’s head as many fly masks are sized and not “one size fits all.” There are also old-fashioned ear bonnets that protect the horse’s ears with a fringe extending down toward the eyes that moves with the motion of the horse’s head; the constant action of the fringe helps deter flies from landing. These bonnets and fringes are usually tied on over the halter or bridle and can be used while riding or driving, as they do not interfere with the bridle.

Horse Tales: Fly away flies!

Using a roll-on fly repellant is particularly helpful in and around your horse’s ears. You can also carefully apply the roll-on around the eyes, as long as it’s not too close to the eyes. Photo by Judy Van Put

Other barrier-type products used for fly protection include leggings and fly sheets. Leggings are especially helpful for horses that are shod or those that frequently stomp their feet, as this can eventually loosen the clinches in the horse’s shoes and can cause splitting or cracks in unshod hooves. There are several companies that offer leggings for fly protection in a lightweight, breathable mesh material. They are usually constructed with hook & loop fasteners that enable them to stay on horses’ legs.

Fly sheets are another option that provide a UV-protected barrier against flies. Some companies offer breakaway fly sheets in many different sizes to fit your horse properly without slipping, and feature belly straps, removable leg straps and fleece at the withers, with deep shoulder gussets to allow for freedom of movement. However, not all horses are comfortable wearing a fly sheet during the summer months. And as with the fly masks, be sure to remove leggings and fly sheets in the evening and check your horse carefully for signs of irritation before putting them back on in the morning.

Fly masks, leggings and sheets can be purchased at your local feed and tack stores, online or from a catalog. Depending on style/color/quality, we found fly masks ranging from as low as $8 to up to $69 per mask – but most are $20 – $30. Prices for leggings and fly sheets are higher and can vary according to the product. It’s helpful to measure your horse to ensure a good fit for any of these fly barriers.

Fly repellents (or “fly sprays” as they are commonly called) are used by most horse owners. There is a huge market for fly repellants, ranging from organic ingredients such as essential oils to natural and synthetic ingredients. Most offer short-term protection, lasting only until the horse works up a sweat – others advertise longer-term protection, even up to a few days.

It’s important to read the label carefully to ensure that you’re applying the repellant properly. Many people do not use enough fly repellant to achieve the desired results, or use the product improperly. Here are some techniques that are suggested to get the best results:

  • Bathe the horse first and let the coat dry, then groom thoroughly.
  • Brush the coat against the grain of the hair and spray the repellent all over the horse’s body, with the exception of the face. Use a sprayer that gives a good misting effect for even coverage.
  • Brush the hair in the direction it grows and spray again. This will ensure that you have coverage on both sides of the hair.
  • Use a towel or mitt to apply products to the face, or use a wipe or roll-on repellent that is intended for use on the face.
  • Don’t forget your horse’s ears – some horses are sensitive to having their ears sprayed and will do better with a wipe or towelette or even a roll-on product.

Roll-on repellants are useful for “spot coverage” in other areas besides the face and ears, such as under the jawline, around the nose and just under or alongside the tail. Roll-ons are convenient in that they can fit in your pocket and can be carried along on your ride.

We’ve found a good old-fashioned remedy for keeping black flies and other biting insects out of our horses’ ears is to use Bag Balm. A swipe of Bag Balm carefully applied to the inside of your horse’s ears will keep the flies away and keep your horse more comfortable.

There are also medicated products that are made for protection of cuts, scabs or open wounds. You do not apply these products directly on the cuts, wounds or irritated skin, but rather the areas around them. It is suggested to use daily, but not on animals under 12 weeks of age, or on debilitated, aged, pregnant or nursing animals. These products are not made to apply near the eyes and mouth, and sparingly around the ears. You should wear gloves or wash your hands with soap and water promptly after use.

Choosing the “right” fly repellant can be difficult, as there are so many products on the market offering the “best protection.” However, if you’re concerned about synthetic chemicals you might opt for a fly repellant made of essential oils, which are becoming more and more popular. Our way of thinking is that when we spray these products on our horse, both we and the horse are inhaling those tiny droplets, and so we prefer to use a natural product, realizing it may be necessary to re-apply more frequently.

Watch for Horse Tales next month for more on fly repellants and natural fly predators.

by Judy Van Put