When that green-eyed family of horse flies drops in for a meal this summer, you might want to try serving them something organic. But you’ll need strong stuff to convince these bloodsuckers that they’re not welcome. These guys are tough. They can turn even the most benevolent host into a twitching, swishing, kicking monster. And it can be even worse when the horse is braided and at a show.
We don’t want our horses to be at the mercy of menacing horse flies or subjected to the savage bite of stable flies, so we all use fly spray. Depending on how heavy the fly load, the effectiveness of a spray can mean the difference between a productive training session and a wasted half-hour.
Insecticide sprays have been around for years. Most work pretty well, but in these days of environmental awareness some people want non-chemical sprays. And manufacturers answered with a wide selection of herbal choices. Instead of unpronounceable chemicals, labels now carry friendly words like lavender, pennyroyal, cedar and cloves. Wonderful news. Better news, however, is that their effectiveness has improved over the years, making them a reasonable choice for many people.
We sprayed 13 different products over last summer to find out which botanical recipes raise a barrier to biting flies. Here’s what we found:
• Most herbal fly sprays don’t work as well as chemical sprays.
Overall, our testers insist chemical sprays are more effective than natural sprays. So, if you’re looking for the strongest defense against flies, we suggest you get chemicals.
While we agree there’s a place for herbal products - and understand why many people prefer them - overall we found herbs don’t knock down flies. They can deter flies by masking the horse’s body odor, but not every spray we tried worked well.
We realize there are a lot of variables to consider, including fly loads in different areas during any particular week; heat and humidity; and how heavily and how often one horse owner applies fly spray compared to another. We took these variations into consideration during our trials.
• Just because it’s herbal doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
Some of our testers experienced nose and throat problems from accidentally breathing the sprays. A stallion suffered swelling in his scrotum and a well-intentioned effort to protect a mare’s udder from biting flies ended up causing her utter discomfort. Read the labels, including the cautions as well as the directions. Be careful not to soak sensitive areas or saturate a horse with sensitive skin.
• Organic sprays can have odd odors.
Odors varied so much we found ourselves giving every product the ’sniff test.’ Some smelled so good we could wear them as a cologne. Others reeked. The aroma of some sprays could gag you. That might not be important if you’re spraying horses out in a pasture, but if the product is being used on one horse after another in a large barn, an unpleasant odor could be a factor.
• What’s bad for the flies can be good for the coat.
An interesting side effect we discovered is that many botanical fly sprays have a wonderful coat-enhancing effect. Lanolin, essential oils and aloe vera can leave a horse’s coat soft and silky, soothing dry skin and minimizing the effects of the hot summer sun. One spray we tried flopped as a fly deterrent but won accolades as an outstanding coat conditioner.
• Products containing oil tend to be more effective than water-based.
On a hot day a water-based mist can evaporate a bit on its way to the horse’s coat. On the flip side, an oil-based product can attract dust. That might not matter much if the horses are turned out or if you are a trail rider. But dust can matter in the show ring or when you are presenting horses to potential customers.
• Concentrates are economical and more effective overall.
Concentrates can save you money and, in general, we found them more effective than ready-to-use sprays - even when it was the same brand. For instance, Absorbine’s Super Shield Green concentrate was a bit more effective than its ready-to-spray bottle. And ounce for ounce, it was less expensive. With both types, you have to remember to shake the bottle before using it every time.
• Botanical fly sprays work better on a clean horse.
Natural fly sprays operate basically as repellents, not insecticides. Rinsing off the sweat and body odor first gives the sprays a clear field to work on. Conversely, if the horse isn’t worked and doesn’t get sweaty, spraying over again with the same product can sometimes contribute to a buildup that can increase the effectiveness.
• All containers are not created equal.
While effectiveness was paramount in our testing, one of the things that came up was the quality of the containers. The product doesn’t do you or the horse any good if the nozzle gets clogged or the bottle collapses. We found that certain types of sprayer nozzles work better than others.
Our favorite is the simple, four-sided nozzle, ’spray-off-stream-off,’ although we couldn’t come up with a reason to ever use the ’stream’ setting. Our least favorite, and a downright aggravation, was the type with the flip up ’door’ in front. Every one we tried resulted in the product leaking and running down our fingers.
The round, endlessly adjustable spray nozzles worked fine, but you can waste product as you test various settings to get the mist just right.
Some of the spray bottles we tried started to collapse. We really liked the tough hold-up-to-anything bottles containing GNatural and Marigold.
But our favorite container was the square, squatty bottle from Xtreme. It stayed sitting upright in the aisle, in the trailer, in the grass. And it had a great molded handgrip.
For use with the concentrates, we found cheap sprayer bottles at the local dollar store worked fine and some even had proportions marked on the side so getting the right ratio of concentrate to water was easy.
While pleasant aromas, good nozzles and great bottles are nice, they aren’t enough if the product doesn’t work. The only place we’re willing to sacrifice a little effectiveness is for sensitive horses, young horses and those that won’t wear a fly mask, making Marigold our first choice for these horses.
For horse owners who insist on a natural-ingredient spray, the only premixed spray to achieve consistent high marks was Xtreme Design Shield Fly Spray. This spray had staying power, but its price backed us off a bit. We’d save it for those situations when you absolutely can’t tolerate a fly, such as during a shoeing session. However, concentrates are the best value. They also proved to be the most powerful.
Deo-Lotion, formerly Clac 86, has been an interesting performer in our trials over the years. Our top fly-spray choice in 1998, it failed to repeat its performance in 2000 and again in 2001. Why was never clear.
This year Deo-Lotion was once again a star, but we found most of our testers used it full strength rather than diluted to achieve its best level of effectiveness, making its use more costly.
Top honors goes to Animal Legend’s Flicks Horse & Pet Spray, which was also our top natural-spray pick in February 2000. Flicks was effective, even on hot, muggy days and worked against flies and mosquitoes.
Chamisa Ridge’s EquiMist Concentrate earns Best Buy, due to its effectiveness against a wide variety of bugs, even during hot weather.