When you're really serious about keeping flies OFF of your horse, fly sheets can protect him with new types of fabric and innovations that improve fit to help sheets stay put. A sheet may not safeguard every square inch of your horse--though some come close--but it can banish insects from large tracts of skin, enabling you to use fly repellent more selectively on what remains exposed.
As awareness of the danger of West Nile virus increases, a sheet is one line of defense against disease-carrying mosquitoes. And if you have summertime concerns that days in the sun will fade your horse's show-ready coat (or even sunburn his sensitive white areas), a fly sheet has the added bonus of shielding him from harmful ultraviolet rays.
Here are the basic qualities your horse's fly sheet needs:
For chafe-free comfort during hours of use, the newest fly sheets are constructed using fabric woven or knitted with soft artificial fibers such as nylon and polyester (as opposed to other fabrics made of vinyl-coated threads that give older fly sheets a stiff "plastic lawn furniture" feel). Improved use of darts, pleats and gussets provides extra room for movement in the shoulder and chest areas. Special slippery nylon lining in the shoulder area and (in the case of neck covers) along the top line helps prevent rubbing of hair. Contour darts in the rump encourage sheets to stay put in action or return to position after your horse rolls.
Recent advances in fabrics and design have caused some fly-sheet makers to recommend that their sheets can be worn around the clock, with regular checks to make sure everything is in place--a potential boon for pasture-kept horses (and their owners).
Small spaces between fibers in the weave or knit of the new fly sheet fabrics will not admit insects but are designed to allow air to circulate freely. A breathable sheet doesn't cause your horse to sweat, even in hot weather. (Because fly sheets are typically light-colored, he will also be cooler as some of the sun's heat is reflected.)
Note that fly sheets are not waterproof or water-resistant, so rain will go right through them (and some manufacturers recommend hosing them off for a quick cleaning). On the other hand, a fly sheet dries immediately and continues to protect your horse after a summer shower, while most topical insect repellents will be diluted or washed away.
Some fly sheet fabrics combine very fine monofilament--thin fishing line--with others fibers, adding extra toughness. Punctures or small tears are often self-limiting as the fabric doesn't continue to unravel beyond the area of damage. Use of quick-release plastic buckles rather than steel can actually reduce damage to the sheet if a buckle snags, because the plastic buckle will often break before the sheet begins to tear. Design that minimizes "easy to grab" areas makes your horse's sheet less vulnerable to playful (and destructive) pasture-mates.
A fly sheet often takes dirt that would otherwise be on your horse as he interacts with the outdoors, so it's designed to be washed according to manufacturer's instructions. As mentioned, hosing is good for quick cleanups. Repeated laundering may even enhance the softness of some fly-sheet fabrics.
Because flies are interested in areas of your horse's body outside the boundaries of many regular sheet or blanket designs, fly sheets--sized like other horse clothing such as blankets or stable sheets--often cover extra territory:
Extended necks--contiguous with the sheet itself and reaching up almost to the poll and throatlatch
Hoods or neck rugs-- separate from the sheet and attached at the withers and shoulders
Belly bands--a wide section of fly-sheet fabric that extends across his vulnerable underside
Extended necks and detachable hoods are often secured at the front of your horse's neck using Velcro fasteners. Adjusting the neck covering to fit him closely helps to prevent the fabric from sliding down his neck. This part of the sheet can also be reinforced with inserts that help maintain its shape.
To keep flies and gnats away from your horse's eyes and ears, some manufacturers offer fly masks made of the same fabric used for fly sheets. There are also turnout leg wraps designed to protect against the biting flies that, if not discouraged, can torment your horse into stomping his shoes right off.
This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.
For more on sprucing up your horse, check out the summer 2007 issue of Everything For Horse & Rider. To order, call 301-977-3900.