Your horse’s ears are one of the most sensitive areas on his body, and insects can put them in agony. You can do a lot to deter these buggers, but dripping a glob of fly repellent in the ear isn’t one of them.
Skip The Trims: Closely trimmed ears look elegant, but they deprive the horse of one of his most efficient biting insect barriers: the hairs inside the ears. Don’t clip unless absolutely necessary.
Fly Masks: Fly masks with ears are the most effective way to protect your horse’s ears from insect irritation. When riding, opt for a riding fly mask or get an ear cover designed for riding.
Turnout: Most of these annoying insects tend to feed the most ferociously at twilight, so avoid turnout at this time if you can.
Barns: You can discourage insects by positioning a fan to blow a strong current of air across doorways or entries to stalls.
Repellents: Saturate a rag with your standard fly repellent and wipe it over outside of the ear. Don’t use it in the ear without a spot test, as inner surfaces are more sensitive, especially if the horse already has bites inside the ear.
To spot test, place a small amount on one area inside the ear. Watch the horse for a few minutes to see if the horse shakes his head or tilts it, which are signs of possible immediate irritation. Check again after 12 and after 24 hours for swelling. If all’s well, apply a thin, non-dripping amount to the inside of the ear without going deep in the ear. Just do the inner surface and don’t let it run into the ear.
Petroleum jelly and Farnam’s Swat (www.farnam.com 800-234-2269) ointment can also be rubbed very lightly on the inner ear to repel insects. Don’t apply it too heavily or use a oil, as you don’t want the stuff to drip into the ear. You can also use a little mentholatum rub for an improved repellent effect, but again, use a thin layer that won’t melt and drip into the ear.
Treating Irritated Ears
If your horse has suffered an assault of ear-biting insects, he may need some first aid. When ears are irritated and the skin is broken, it’s best not to use insecticide/repellent products on them, at least where the skin is injured. Protect the ears with a mask with ears until healing has occurred.
Remember, the ears are likely to be sore so you’ll need to be gentle when you treat them. A good way to start is toweling the face, gradually moving up to include some gentle stroking of the outside of the ears with the towel. Once the horse is relaxed, you can probably get the ears treated without need for other restraint. If not, you may need a twitch or at least a helper to stand at the head and distract/restrain the horse.
Use a cotton ball moistened but not dripping with witch hazel to gently clean the inner surfaces and edges of the ears of any dried blood or easily loosened scabs. Start with the portions you can easily reach and work out toward the tip/sides. Continue this cleaning until there is no more blood, dirt or exudate on the cotton, but don’t try to remove tightly adherent scabs. They are an natural bandages.
Creams and ointments that are either rapidly absorbed or too thick to melt are the best choices for treatment. Gels melt too easily. If the ear is inflamed, over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream, the veterinary prescription ointment Panalog or the human product Gold Bond cream are all good choices.
Gold Bond cream combines moisturizers and mild antimicrobials with aloe and a low concentration of menthol for itch and pain relief. Your favorite equine wound-treatment cream may work well, too, but you must be careful it doesn’t contain strong concentrations of irritating oils, like tea tree.
If the ears aren’t badly inflamed, a coating of plain zinc-oxide ointment, like Desitin, or one of our all-time favorite equine ointments, Corona ointment from Summit Industries (www.summitinds.com 800-241-6996, $7.50/14 oz.) Corona ointment is soothing, moisturizing and will provide a good barrier for the ears.