The most frequent use of fly sprays is for horses in work. Pasture horses generally do fine under most conditions with a fly mask and/or fly boots, using a spray only when it’s really buggy. But trying to work a horse that is being attacked by flies is like trying to hang wallpaper with one hand. You can do it, but it’s far from easy. In this trial, we looked at a variety of fly-spray products and tested them in tough, sweaty conditions to find which players came out ahead.
When it comes to fly sprays, it seems we have a dizzying array of choices these days — from traditional chemical mixtures to natural-ingredient products. The chemical types usually utilize permethrin or pyrethrins.
While these fly sprays are often the most effective in difficult conditions, they can be a bit of a headache in the barn. Pyrethrins are toxic to fish, and both chemicals are classified as a pesticide — thus making you potentially subject to your local chemical disposal laws. (In other words, don’t just chuck the empty bottle in the trash, or pour the remnants down the drain.) But there is no denying the efficacy of these products. Chemicals stand up in harsh environments.
Because of these chemical-related concerns, there has been a push in recent years toward a more natural approach to fly sprays. These sprays usually use essential oils, which are concentrated liquids containing volatile aroma compounds from plants, which are called aromatic herbs or aromatic plants.
They are also known as volatile or ethereal oils, or simply as the oil of the plant material from which they are extracted, such as oil of clove. The term ”essential” indicates that the oil carries distinctive scent (essence) of the plant, not that it is an especially important or fundamental substance. Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation.
Other processes include expression, or solvent extraction. These techniques are used in perfumes and cosmetics, for flavoring food and drink, and for scenting incense and household cleaning products.
While these more natural products can be less stressful in terms of disposal and toxicity, don’t let the natural moniker fool you into thinking that these products are completely safe.
In our trial, one of our testers has a cedar allergy and had a severe allergic reaction to two of the products that contained cedar oil.
Similarly, a barn manager misread the label of the Espree Aloe Herbal Horse Spray and didn’t dilute it properly, causing several of the horses to break out in hives before the mistake was caught (not the product’s fault).
A few other test horses broke out in hives after use of a couple of the natural sprays, but they were individual cases. Interestingly, we had no problems with the chemical combinations.
The lesson is this: Follow label instructions, use a 24-hour spot test if using a product on a horse for the first time, and be aware that other people and animals in the barn may be bothered by the spray. Cats are especially sensitive to many fly-spray ingredients.
In addition, be sure you heed disposal laws for your area.
We tested these products in the heat of the summer on horses doing hard work — conditioning hacks and gallops, intensive dressage schooling, and jump schooling. They were judged on whether whether they had an effect on the flies, and if so, how long the affect lasted once the horse went in to work and began to sweat.
In this test, being natural or chemical didn’t seem to guarantee success or failure, so we have a top pick in each category. Our testers were in California and in New York, which brought an interesting mix of results to the field trial.
Interestingly, fly-spray winners from past trials, like Flicks and Aloe Espree, didn’t do as well when we put them up against the ”hold up under sweaty conditions” criteria. They’re still good choices, as is the great-smelling Equi-Spa Peppermint Summer Protection, but they aren’t as long-lasting.
If you want a natural spray, we recommend Equilite’s Ricochet Horse Spray. This product smelled great and proved effective in hot and sweaty conditions. It hung tough on the worst days, and it caused no negative skin or hair reactions in any of the testers.
Honorable mention goes to our perennial favorite Marigold Spray from EQyss. This fly spray is also our top recommendation for sensitive or allergic horses, as it has been in previous years.
The clear winner in the traditional chemical category and Best Buy overall was Absorbine’s SuperShield Red. We like this one because it gave us immediate, visible results and held power over the course of an entire ride. It was well tolerated by all of the test horses and test riders and left the coats feeling soft.
In chemicals an honorable mention is definitely due to Endure, which was an impressive product as well and held its own against sweat.