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Horse Health

Horsemanship How-to: Soothe the Fly-Sensitive Horse

Flies always provoke some kind of reaction around a horse, whether it’s a stomp of a hoof or a swish of a tail. But some unlucky horses have an even greater reaction, one that goes far beyond a mere annoyance. Intense itching provokes the horse to rub against fence posts and chew its skin. Loss of hair is evident, ranging from a buckshot, speckled appearance to palm-sized bald patches. Once the inflamed skin is broken or abraded, bacteria invade the wound, causing superficial skin infections.

Unfortunately, the usual anti-fly measures aren’t sufficient to soothe the fly-sensitive horse. If a horse in your life has what’s commonly called a fly allergy or sweet itch, here are six tips to help make the warm weather months more bearable.

  1. Though flies are prevalent in the daytime, gnats and midges are active at dusk and just after sunset. These are the most likely culprits for sweet itch, particularly the species culicoides. If possible, stable the affected horse inside at night. This will reduce his exposure to the pesky critters.
  2. Closely inspect your horse’s skin for any open sores or ulcerated lesions, especially on his lower legs, chest and belly. After washing these areas clean with a shampoo formulated for irritated skin, and rinsing thoroughly, dab a small amount of topical ointment on each blemish. This will act as a barrier against dirt and germs and also help soothe the skin. Prolonged infections may require a course of oral antibiotics prescribed by your vet.
  3. Use vigilance when selecting fly sprays. While you want to use one that’s effective, a horse with inflamed, irritated skin may be extra sensitive to some ingredients. Watch for signs like skin scalding or flaking, which could mean that your horse needs a change of sprays.
  4. Make use of various fly barrier garments, from fly masks to mesh leg wraps and body-cloaking fly sheets. Not only will these help deter biting insects, they also keep your horse from chewing on his skin as he attacks an itch. Aggressive scratching can set the stage for skin infections.
  5. Dirty horses, especially those who roll in mucky areas, attract flies. Sometimes simple grooming isn’t enough. Use the hose or a bucket of water and a sponge to wash away urine and manure stains.
  6. If your horse continues to be tortured by a sensitivity to certain flies or biting insects, then consult with your vet. Daily doses of antihistamines may be prescribed. As a last resort, an injection of a long-acting steroid can help turn-off the allergic response and make your horse less miserable.

Finally, keep in mind that horses can develop allergies dependent on a very specific geological location. Though it may not always be practical, moving the horse to a new home may vastly improve his problem.

Further Reading
Flies and Pests

See more Horsemanship How-tos >>

Cindy Hale

Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.

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