F L I E S
The War of Un-Attraction
House flies, horse flies, deer flies, black flies, mosquitoes… somehow they all seem to find their way to horses, and just maybe, you’ll think, to your horse in particular.
Why do these creatures, with their pesky meddling with horse and human, exist? Because, actually, in other spheres, they are pretty useful. There are about 10,000 fly species worldwide and many of those species have a dedicated purpose of controlling the populations of other insects, such as the gypsy moth; accelerating the breakdown of waste material; and assisting in pollination. In the scientific world, the fruit fly has been the very backbone of gene research. An impressive resume for an insect!
Yet, around horses, flies are not on their ‘beneficial’ behavior, and have repeatedly proven themselves to be unwanted visitors. With their swarming, painful biting, and attraction to the eyes, ears and vulnerable underbellies of horses and ponies, they can drive horses to distraction, causing them to run to the point of injury, or have them stamping their hooves so much they become sore and even break up hooves and loosen shoes. For any thoughtful horseperson, there is only one approach to their existence: Keep them away!
For horseowners, flies can be broken down into two main categories: nuisance and biting. The biting type pierce the skin of the animal (including the human) and draw blood in order to continue its own life cycle. Nuisance flies, however, feed on animal fluids and waste and associated areas – thus, their preoccupation with stable areas and mucous areas of the horse -- and although they do not bite or cause pain, their swarming, ticklish presence can be as disruptive.
HERE’S A DOWN ‘N’ DIRTY GUIDE TO WHICH FLIES ARE FOUND WHERE …
* Stable flies prefer the sun; so do the black flies that come out from forests and lakes and rivers; so do the hard-biting deer flies that aim for your horse’s ears, his head and neck; and the relentless horseflies, unmistakable for their large size and their propensity to attack and bite along the topline of the horse, making it so very difficult for him to shake off and the cause of often dangerous bucking attacks.
* House flies however, like to be indoors and darker conditions, so they will be there to greet your horses as they come in to escape from the above roster of fly enemies. Resembling stable flies, house flies will bite around eyes and any wounds. They are the ones most likely buzzing around the tackroom on a summer’s afternoon.
* Mosquitoes prefer dusk and dawn and, like some other flies, they are attracted by movement, as well as carbon dioxide, wet areas, and, apparently, dark colors.
In addition to that, regardless of their attraction to light or dark, almost all flies are attracted to waste, whether it is fresh or old manure; damp and rotting vegetation; and damp or watery areas.
AND HOW TO ESCAPE THEM …
Armed with this concise fly information, therefore, the two most important steps in keeping your horse comfortable in fly season are:
1) keep your property as clean and as dry as possible. Which means keeping it as raked, as swept, as rinsed and as puddle free as much as possible. Pick paddocks and any random manure droppings; rake up daily the stray bedding and hay inside and outside the barn and put the rakings into the manure pile; sprinkle the manure heap with lime to keep down odor and to cut attraction; keep bedding away from feed tubs in each stall and sweep out under them daily; sweep the feedroom daily and keep the bins shut; sweep puddles to spread out rainwater and sweep out the wash stall to keep it as dry as possible; wipe down around the feedtubs if you feed wet feeds; and move the feedroom/general garbage can to a more remote location for the season.
2) provide shelter against sunlight for your horse. If the fly type needs sunlight (see above), then by providing a deep enough shelter, your horse can simply spend those sunny, hot days in the dark depth of the run-in shed. No doubt you have noted that in the summertime that the fields are empty, as those pasture-kept horses are all standing in the shelter. They instinctively know that ‘dark’ equals relief from the host of biting flies that summertime brings. And by keeping the stall or run-in as clean as possible of manure -- horses will drop their manure in the shelter -- and grain droppings and residue, the shade-loving species won’t be as prevalent either.
Make sure your shelter can hold all of the herd, and that there is adequate ventilation to keep the inside temperature comfortable. High windows and two entrances will accomplish this, or even re-fitting a pre-fabricated building so that the top few boards just under the eves can be removed during the warm months. Trees casting shade will help significantly with cooling temperatures.
A very economical and permanent solution is to plant native shade trees, so that as the tree matures, the branches will provide both shade (dark!) and allow for cooling breezes. Trees, too, will last longer, add to property values, and need nearly no upkeep compared to a shelter.
In addition, here are other weapons in the war of “unattraction”:
* consider feeding a fly-repellent supplement. This can be as simple as garlic (up to two tablespoons a day) or a specially designed equine product. The trick is to begin feeding the supplement sufficiently early in the year to ensure full effect, which can mean adding them into the feed as early as February.
* employ small flocks of birds, such as guinea hens or chickens, that feed on flies. Not a choice for everyone, but they can be very effective and provide quite a bit of amusement to humans.
* spread parasitic wasps in the manure heap (if you don’t use a manure-removal service). These have proven to be a real, yet natural, weapon against fly populations. They are delivered in a small box and are to be spread periodically in the manure heap, or around the ‘waste’ area in a pasture. Parasitic wasps do not sting; instead, they use their stinger solely to penetrate the fly pupae and lay in its place its own egg for eventual hatching. Since these wasps live only about a month, the applications need to be done more than once a season.
* hang fly strips (and/or fly traps) over that re-located garbage can and then in every possible location, but not anywhere in stalls or elsewhere where they can attach to horses and people. They are both glorified and notorious for their entangling powers!
* build a fly hutch, which attracts area flies by the droves, and captures them. These hutches can be situated near the barn and pastures. Plans for their construction may be found on the web.
* hang up a clear bag of water. Apparently, the magnifying effect of the water tricks flies into thinking a swarm of outsized flies is in the vicinity.
For more direct comfort of your horses, plan to do the following:
* try to go to night turnout if your horses are stabled. The complicating factor is that mosquitoes and some biting flies are active at dawn and dusk, so turnout in late afternoon, as can be the norm, and bringing in after dawn can still mean your horse is exposed to a very active fly population. During the day and into the evening, keep a box fan turned on the stall to create sufficient breeze to blow away the flies and minimize the attractive effect of carbon dioxide.
* flyspray and more flyspray. Many are very effective, but most do not last for more than a day. Therefore, plan to re-apply daily. Homemade flysprays mixed into a spraybottle are quite popular and can prove to be cost-effective. One recipe suggests equal parts water; apple cider or white vinegar; Avon’s Skin So Soft; and a tablespoon of an essential oil. It is also possible to add a small amount of a brand-name spray to this mix. As well, experiment with the essential oils, which include using citronella, eucalyptus, and clove bud, as well as others, all of which can be found at organic supermarkets and health-food stores.
* cream products create excellent barriers to flies for those sensitive areas around eyes, ears, under the jaw, those stamping lower legs, and underbellies. They are also indispensable for protecting open wounds against fly marauders. The specially formulated SWAT, found at any tack store, or Desitin work well. These creams usually need only to be applied a few times a week. A swipe of baby oil can be quite a repellent, but it must not be used where the sun shines directly on the skin, such as around the eyes, outer ears, and lower legs.
* fly masks and fly sheets. Most horses will tolerate fly masks, those partial hoods that cover the face, ears and eyes. Be sure to get a hood that does cover the ears and is in as light a color as possible, to maintain maximum comfort in the sun. A horse can wear a flymask in the rain and overnight, if you don’t have the option of removing it at those times.
Some fly masks now sport a full length nose panel to aid in comfort, prevent sun burn on white markings, and also as a possible deterrent in the condition known as “head shaking.” It is thought that allergies and/or sunlight trigger the sudden and hard headtoss brought on by discomfort in the trigeminal nerve and elsewhere in the face. Other fly masks are designed to be worn while riding, made with very sheer fabric (that usually won’t hold up in turnout roughhousing).
Fly sheets are made of a mesh and fit like a stable blanket. Some have a wide belly surcingle and hoods to add to fly protection. Fly sheets are not tremendously sturdy, however, and can rip easily with rolling on hard or rocky ground or in the teeth of a zealous pasturemate.
* worming. The botfly is one fly that does affect the internal well-being of your horse. In the late summer and fall, the curved profile of the botfly as it hovers around its potential equine host, hoping to lay its eggs on the horse’s front legs, so that the horse will later ingest them and they become internal parasites. They are a nuisance, therefore, during the laying period, but become a parasite that needs regular treatment in its next stage. The wormer ivermectin is recommended to treat this (most worming programs suggest ivermectin in the fall – after the first frost -- and spring months). Bot flies, identified as tiny beige dots located around the horse’s knees, can be removed by hand, with a sharp blade, or even clippers.
When out riding:
* Try to ride out on the trails when the fly population is low, which can mean extremely early in the daylight or as the last rays are slipping over the horizon, or plan for a cloudy or rainy day. Choose trails that allow faster gaits than just the walk.
* Use flyspray liberally, and re-apply any cream fly repellants, especially around the neck and chest area. Don’t forget yourself and consider long-sleeves shirts.
Fly season takes strategy and some effort, but it will pay off handsomely in the end, when your horse is peaceable grazing and resting in the heat of summer and you can enjoy your rides. So plan to enjoy the beauty of summer – without the flies!
Note: All prices in US Dollars