The one fly-control product we probably spend the most money on — and the most time cursing — is fly spray. We’ve pretty much got to have the stuff. Flies are unmerciful creatures, feeding on and aggravating horses with an unrelenting fierceness. So we apply insect repellent to our horses regularly — which usually means at least daily.
While fly-spray manufacturers often boast effective time periods of up to 14 days, we’ve yet to see that happen. As a matter of fact, we feel if you get 24 hours of protection out of a product, you’re doing pretty well. Plus, no fly spray will stop all insects from landing on your horse, therefore pestering him and making him shake his head or stomp his feet and driving both of you wacky. The flies have to land so they come in contact with the insecticide in order for it to eventually kill them.
You may need different fly-repellent ingredients to combat different species of flies and you may also find varying body chemistries mean products rarely work uniformly on all horses. We’ve also found that flies can become immune to a product that’s used year after year after year in every barn in the neighborhood. Just choosing a “new” product can make a difference in fly pestering. And, finally, some horses just seem to be more fly-magnets than other horses — usually the sensitive-skinned ones who react to different chemicals.
Fly sprays generally have to be reapplied after the horse sweats or gets caught in the rain or bathed. We have not found sprays to remain truly effective after the horse gets wet, despite many manufacturer claims of otherwise.
Overall, oil-based sprays tend to have a little more staying power than water-based sprays, but oils are dust magnets and messy to use — after all, they are oily. Most fly-repellent sprays today are water-based.
We field test fly sprays every couple of years as new products continue to appear on the market. Last year, we tested 24 different fly-repellent products, determining that Farnam’s Bite Free, a new chemical spray, was our ultimate favorite. The Best Buy was Bio-Groom’s Repel-35, which combines chemical and natural repellents.
For those who must have all-natural products, we recommended Neogen’s Gnat-Away Cream (especially good for faces) and Animal Legends’ Flicks spray. The natural-spray Best Buy was Equine America’s Citronella spray.
For shows, we suggested Absorbine’s UltraShield, a strong, effective spray that also gave our horses a shiny coat. Pfizer’s Solitude pour-on was our pick for pastured horses.
When we concluded our 2000 test, we were surprised that Clac-86, our 1998 favorite product and an all-natural repellent, finished in the middle of the pack. The manufacturer also was at a loss for an explanation, questioning if we had received an already diluted product, which we then diluted further believing it was a concentrate. With all the product gone, there was no way to know. When we retested Clac-86 during summer 2000, we found that, while the product proved to have average effectiveness, we still preferred our top picks from the 2000 field test.
Dealing With A Fly-Spray Reaction
While it’s not too common, some very sensitive-skinned horses (or those whose skin is highly irritated from insect bites) may have a negative reaction to fly sprays. This can range from as mild as a little fussing when you apply the spray to signs of extreme irritation (rolling, biting at skin) or even hives/swelling.
If you suspect an adverse reaction, immediately wash the horse with warm water and a gentle shampoo/soap to remove it from the skin. Rinse with cold water to squelch inflammation. If hives or any signs of skin damage appear, consult your veterinarian.
Even more rare is a systemic reaction to a fly spray. We saw this in two horses who reacted to the same product (since removed from the market). Central nervous system effects included extreme agitation, disorientation, staggering and one horse looked as if he might actually have a full-blown seizure (eyes rolling back into his head, trembling) but fortunately did not.
There is a much higher risk of systemic reactions if you use products intended for animals other than horses — be it dogs, sheep, cattle, etc. Immediate first aid is the same: Wash it off ASAP. You will want to notify your vet and have the horse checked over for any residual signs, but odds are the reaction will pass quickly once you have washed the horse. Keep him in a quiet stall until cleared by the vet.
For spray accidentally put into the eyes, you’ll need some help. Someone needs to hold the horse (and possibly a twitch), so the other can treat the horse. Restrain the horse then use one hand to hold the eyelids slightly apart. Adjust a hose for a gentle, continuous stream (not spray) and position it above the eye, at forehead level, water directed toward the eye. Try to concentrate on keeping your hands firmly in place (eye open, hose in position) while you follow the horse’s movement with your body. A flush for a minute or two should do it.
Rather than spraying the heck out of horse’s face with a chemical spray, we opt for a fly mask. Horses whose eyes seem to “weep” all season will especially benefit greatly from a mask. Fly masks obviously work longer than sprays, and few horses object to wearing them.
However, there are a large number of equine Houdinis who can get out of them, so resisting snags and tears is a big issue. No one wants to be buying two or three fly masks each season.
We would avoid any fly mask that doesn’t cover your horse’s ears, unless there’s a specific reason for it. Flies and gnats love ears. And never purchase a fly mask that doesn’t have a safety-release closure like hook-and-loop or Velcro closures. If your horse gets hung on a fence or tree, you don’t want him waiting there until you notice it.
Cashel/Robin G’s Crusader fly mask is our top pick. We suggest purchasing the long-mask style with ears, which effectively covers the horse’s nose and ears. It offers a high level of comfort, including the eye areas, and durability.
For sensitive-skinned or hard-to-fit horses, our Best Buy mask, the WF. Young/Absorbine UltraShield fly mask, is an excellent choice. This “free-form” mask is made of a durable netting that puffs out away from the horse’s eyes, while the elastic edge keeps flies from crawling in under the mask.
Be smart about fly sheets. They’ll help keep flies from biting, but not completely, because some of them are so lightweight and loose weave that flies can bite right through them.
And don’t forget that while many horses find relief through fly sheets — and fly masks — overheating is always a concern. Use common sense. If your horse is sweating with his fly sheet on, take it off.
If you’re turning your horses out in fly sheets, you’re going to want a sheet made of a PVC-type material that will hold up to snags and pulls. In 1998, our testing showed Royal Riders made the best sheet, which featured a close weave and good options. PVC fly sheets can also serve double-duty as protective sheets over more expensive and less durable stable blankets.
Sheets made of nylon or light cotton mesh are best used only on horses while they are in their stalls, such as at shows. These sheets are not designed to withstand the stresses of turnout and often do not have leg straps.
For horses confined to stalls and/or small paddocks, you can again look for a slightly heavier cotton or nylon mesh, without going to the more expensive PVC-coated sheets, a s long as they include leg straps and can resist the damage from rolling and rubbing.
Gel The Legs
Hoof stomping is one of the most aggravating problems that goes along with fly season. Horses that stomp loosen shoes, break hoof walls and even damage legs with repeated heavy stomping.
While you can spray the horse’s legs, we have found the gel fly-repellent products to be effective and long-lasting on the horse’s legs. They’re easy to apply to small areas like legs and heads using a plastic glove, although you may find it too much work for overall body/large areas. We found both Fly-Off Gel (Topfit) and CC Rider Gel (Goodwinol) top choices for smearing on our horses’ legs and holding flies at bay.
You most likely know all the manure management hints that apply to keeping flies at a minimum, so we’re not going to go into any depth in this area. Just remember those hours you spend picking out stalls daily, cleaning up paddocks and run-in sheds and dragging pastures will go a long way to cutting back on flies. When manure is spread and dried, it is much less attractive to flies.
In June 2000, we discussed rabon-containing feed-through fly-control products and determined that, while they are effective when combined with other management practices, we are unsure about rabon’s safety and would like to see more study about its use in horses.
Diatomaceous earth is also touted as for feed-through fly control, but we found you must feed 1 to 2% of the total feed ration by weight for it to do any good. For most horses, that would be 3.4 to 6.8 ounces of the stuff per day — quite a lot — and we found no studies that show how effective it really is.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: Topfit 888/373-3853; Goodwinol 800/554-1080; Farnam 800/234-2269; BioGroom 800/762-0232; Neogen 800/621-8829; Absorbine 800/628-9653; Pfizer 610/444-7554; Clac-86 800/526-6310; Cashel Co. 800/333-2202; Royal Riders 800/437-6676.