June 23, 2018
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Don’t bug me: Horses need your help

Courtesy of Jesse Schwarcz
Courtesy of Jesse Schwarcz
A variety of insects can make a horse's life miserable. Here, Henry at Wild Ivy Farm in Bangor wears a fly mask. Many visitors mistake the mask for a blindfold.
By Cassie Elia, Special to the BDN

The war has begun. Armed with sprays, powders, mesh body armor and traps, horse owners prepare for the battle of the bugs. Insects that plague horses range from the annoying end of the nuisance scale to the downright deadly. Luckily, the weapons available to horse owners for combating biting insects are numerous.

Possibly the greatest invention for the comfort of a horse has been the fly mask. People often ask me, with a touch of alarm in their voices, why all of the horses my farm are blindfolded. It may appear that way, but each mask is merely a screen door for the horse’s face. The masks are made of mesh that blocks a fair amount of harmful ultraviolet light, but more importantly keeps insects away from a horse’s eyes and ears. There are now full body blankets and leg wraps also made of the same materials to keep bugs off the majority of a horse’s body.

The little nasties will find their way in if an opening is left, so in addition to masks and such, there are repellent sprays made specifically for horses that will efficiently protect the rest of its body. Not all horses will put up with being dressed from head to toe in screens and are positively Houdini-like in their disrobing. In that case, a fly spray, all around, is the better option.

The easiest way to find out which sprays work is to ask someone who has used them. Going with the cheapest one on the shelf is not the best choice. An ineffective spray will have to be used more often and more thoroughly than a more potent formula. In the end, no money is saved. Check labels too and do a skin test on your horse before slathering it in a potential allergen. Some ingredients, particularly different oils, may produce allergic reactions.

Knowing the target areas for the insects that are more active at different times of the season will help when applying sprays. No-see-ums will go for the eyes and ears. Black flies also head for the ears but are most likely to bite under the belly and on the chest. Mosquitoes, deer flies and horseflies go for a full body attack. Bot flies will attack the legs as will stable flies. Stable flies also like to hang out on a horse’s face. Ticks will use the horse’s legs and tail to climb up onto the body. A quick spritz on the larger surface areas is not going to give a horse enough protection. Targeting the nooks and crannies where bugs like to hang out is highly important.

Some horse owners may be reluctant to apply toxic sprays to their horses and opt for a gentler approach to bug battle. Garlic powder and apple cider vinegar both can be fed to horses and have a degree of insect repellency. Diatomaceous earth will not repel insects, but when added to a horse’s feed, can reduce the insect population around the manure pile. Chickens and Guinea fowl are particularly adept at hunting down and consuming ticks and other insects. Praying mantises, ladybugs and tiny wasps that prey only on flies can be ordered by mail and released around the pastures.

Particular plants have insect repellent qualities. Catnip, rosemary, mint, nasturtium, marigold and citronella are just a few. Sticky traps, tapes and banners can be hung about the stable to reduce flying insects. Just be sure to hang them high. Not much is more gross than having a sticky tape covered with dead bugs glued to your hair.

Many equine disease are passed by mosquitoes and other biting flies. One of the most dangerous is eastern equine encephalitis which can be transmitted to humans as well. This is a disease for which there is an equine vaccine, but not all horses receive vaccinations. West Nile Virus affects horses as it does all other creatures. Equine infectious anemia is spread by biting insects and has no cure, treatment or vaccine. Ticks pass several diseases through a bite, including piroplasmosis and the dreaded and prevalent Lyme disease. This is hardly a complete list of insect-borne afflictions but it is a good enough list to convince all horse owners to take insect control very seriously.

There is no escaping the scourge of insects when doing anything outdoors in Maine. The best we can do is to make use of available deterrents and try not to get stuck in the fly tape.

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