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The Trail Rider’s Guide to Tick Prevention

Crisp, clear evenings and changing leaves are some of the top reasons why fall has some of the best trail riding weather of the year. There are fewer bugs around, too, but many tick species are still active until the steady frost of early winter arrives. Here are some tips to help you and your horse enjoy the late season trails with less worry about ticks.

Preventing Ticks

Ticks most commonly congregate in underbrush and in areas of overgrowth. Tall grasses and weedy areas dense with vegetation are prime locations for ticks to wait for hosts to brush past. Unfortunately, such places are also common along many horse riding trails and in pastures. Therefore, it’s more effective to learn how to remove ticks from your horse in a prompt manner than avoid areas where they might be.

When you return from a trail ride, make a tick check part of your post-ride grooming session. Ticks are most often picked up on your horse’s legs. They then tend to move upward on the body and are commonly found in areas of thin hair, such as between a horse’s front and back legs. They also commonly settle along the neck and ears.

Ticks require blood meals at each life stage before they molt and mature and larval forms can be very small. It is often easier to feel for attached ticks on your horse than to rely on seeing them. As you groom, run your fingers over your horse’s skin. If you feel any small hard lumps, part the hair and take a closer look. If you find an attached tick, here’s what to do:

  1. Find a pair of clean tweezers.
  2. Part the hair around the tick so you have a clear view of where it is attached. If this is in a dark place, get someone to hold a light.
  3. Attach the tweezers firmly to the body of the tick as close to the site of attachment as possible.
  4. With a firm and steady pull straight back, remove the tick.
  5. Clean the bite wound with soapy water or an antiseptic such as dilute iodine.
  6. Watch for any signs of infection, such as increased swelling, drainage, heat, or pain to the touch. If you see any of these, call your veterinarian.

Tick-Borne Diseases in Horses

There are three main diseases ticks can spread to horses. The most common is anaplasmosis, which used to be called equine ehrlichiosis. Spread via deer ticks, this disease causes fever, lethargy, inappetence, swollen legs, and sometimes red spots on the gums. It is usually seen in the late fall to early winter. Treatment is antibiotics, usually either oxytetracycline or doxycycline.

Piroplasmosis is an equine tick-borne disease endemic in many countries outside of the U.S. It is a reportable foreign animal disease that is monitored by the USDA in this country and occasionally cases do occur here. Caused by bacteria spread most commonly by the cayenne and American dog ticks, this disease causes weakness, lethargy, abdominal swelling and jaundice. Although treatable, horses can become chronic carriers and act as a reservoir for transmission to others, which is why this disease is strictly monitored.

Lyme disease the third tick-borne disease in horses and perhaps the most mysterious. Difficult to diagnose and treat, this disease causes joint and muscle pain similar to humans and dogs. It is sometimes considered a rule-out disease if other causes of the clinical signs can’t be explained. However, antibiotic therapy in suspect cases is often curative.

Checking for ticks after every ride and promptly removing any attached ticks when found is the best way to prevent these diseases since most require attachment of a tick for more than 24 hours in order to transmit disease. Bug sprays containing pyrethrin help prevent ticks, too, but need to be reapplied frequently, especially if your horse is sweating heavily or gets wet.

Remember to check yourself for ticks, too, when returning home from a ride. Regular vigilance is the best prevention for you and your horse.

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