Comfort’s the thing with fly masks. If a fly mask is irritating, your horse is going to try to remove it, whether by rubbing, shaking or with the help of a pasture mate. And once it’s removed, it’s probably going to be in fairly rough shape when you finally track it down.
When assessing a mask’s comfort, look for manufacturers who paid attention to the details of a finished product. Turn the mask inside out and check for rough edges by rubbing your fingers all over the mask. Pieces of vinyl mesh that are cut and left with no finishing or soft cover will rub. Loose threads will unravel and can irritate.
Since your horse is wearing his mask during the hottest hours of the day, you want to ensure that the mask isn’t hot and that there’s good airflow through it. All the fly masks in this field trial appeared comfortable in that respect.
We also think longer masks are the way to go for maximum face coverage. Flies crawling all over your horse’s nose will cause him to rub. And if he rubs enough, he’ll probably remove the fly mask. We think masks should reach at least midway between the horse’s cheekbones and his nostrils. Masks that end at the cheekbones just aren’t long enough for us.
We especially like Cashel’s long mask, which has an extension that covers the horse’s nose. This option is great for total fly coverage and may help white-nosed horses that easily sunburn in that area. However, it’s not for everyone. We did have a number of horses who didn’t like the nose covering or found it was too long to allow them to graze comfortably. We even had one horse who insisted it was something to eat and kept grabbing at it.
Pay attention to how the mask you choose molds to your horse’s cheek and throatlatch area. The throatlatch is a common area for gaps to occur in otherwise well-fitted fly masks. If flies get in the mask, your horse is going to be worse off than with no mask at all. Some testers reported horses going nuts when this occurred.
We also noted that once flies enter a mask, especially the ears, they’re going to stay there — we had to turn several masks inside out to get the flies out. Several testers wondered why elastic wasn’t also included in this throatlatch area to prevent gaps, but this would be tricky to accomplish and still end up with a fly mask that easily could fit a wide range of horses.
We appreciate some sort of binding, fleece or microfleece on the fly mask to add a little fly barrier in this area. The drawback to fleece is that the horse can get warm and sweat under it, plus it can be a debris collector. But binding isn’t as fluffy and cushy as fleece or microfleece.
The noseband with small-pile fleece from Dr. Benson’s and Absorbine proved comfortable fly barriers and collected minimal debris, while Professional’s Choice Wrangler fly mask included a nifty foam-padded noseband that was comfortable and resisted debris.
The Lycra zipper-closure masks from Schneiders and Libertyville Saddle Shop fit snugly in this area, too, and were especially soft on the horse’s head.
Included in achieving maximum comfort for your horse is to be sure the mask you get fits your horse. Oversize masks leave larger gaps flies can get into and make removal easy even for the most inept equine escape artist.
That said, too small is also bad, as it will inevitably be uncomfortable and can cause rubs.
You should check the fit of the fly mask at the nose and the base of the chin with the horse’s head up and with it down, as if he were grazing. You want to ensure the mask doesn’t get too tight when the horse chews his feed, raises his head or otherwise moves.
Manufacturers, like Absorbine, Cashel Company and Horse Sense, who offer a wide variety of sizes are the first places we’d go when we have a hard-to-fit equine head. Cashel even outfits mules. Professional’s Choice has addressed this problem brilliantly, too, with a hook-and-loop elastic fastener at the poll, as well as the usual one at the throatlatch.
Eyes And Ears
Some of the masks in our trial didn’t have eye darts as deep as we prefer. We want the material to stay away from the horse’s eyes so it doesn’t rub there. Just think how it would feel to have a veil or something a bit heavier rubbing on your eye all day.
Most of our testers preferred masks with ears, especially if they are turning out show horses with clipped ears. Earless masks tended to let in more flies and also left the ears without protection from pesky gnats. However, it’s important that the ear coverings are made well.
We want ear covers made of a softer material than the typical PVC-coated vinyl. The vinyl ears tended to be too stiff and uncomfortable, although we did like the “one-piece” design these offered. However, with a little extra effort, many manufacturers were able to ensure the ear area was soft and wouldn’t rub the horses.
While we tried zipper and pull-on fly masks as well, our testers liked hook-and-loop closures, like Velcro, best. It’s the simplest for daily removal — fly masks should never be left on 24 hours a day without the horse’s face being checked for rubs and sores — and most horses are well accustomed to the sounds it makes opening and closing.
Most of the masks had one closure, although we can see the advantages to two fasteners, especially when pasture mates nip at the masks. We also found the double-lock closures on the Farnam and Kensington masks excellent devices that should stay secure and foil most equine closure-grabbers.
You can also place a fly mask under the horse’s halter, which will help hold it on somewhat, but most of us don’t use halters for turnout (or, if we must, it should be a breakaway/safety halter). The fly mask should not go over the halter.
We also like the forelock opening on the Crusader, which accomplishes a couple of things. It’s probably much more comfortable for some horses not to have their forelocks stuck inside their masks all day. It also may help anchor the mask if the horse rubs his head or rolls.
It’s important to your horse’s eye health that masks are kept clean. Masks with fleece are not likely to dry overnight, so we recommend you do the same thing as you do with blankets: Stock yourself with two fly masks — one that the horse wears while the other is being washed and dried. Never place a damp mask back on your horse, as it’s likely to rub and may cause skin irritations.
We found the vinyl-covered masks a bit easier to clean overall, as we could dunk them in soapy water, rub them with a soft brush, rinse and hang to dry. The closer-mesh masks, like Absorbine and Dr. Benson’s, were a little tougher to get clean with a brush. We found a washing machine a better choice for these.
Color is an issue of debate. Darker colors are believed to absorb more warmth from the sun, therefore being “hotter” to wear and also be more likely to attract flies. Lighter colors show more dirt but are easier to find in a pasture when lost.
We have no simple answer here and even learned that darker colors reflect UV rays better (see side bar on page 12) and are more likely to provide more “shade” for the eyes. For us, fit and comfort outweigh color.
Some masks, like the Classic Cover-ups Big Kahuna, earned raves just by their design. Others, like the Foxwise Fly Evader, were placed high by testers with horses with particular needs, like small-nosed horses.
The overall top choice, however, was again the Cashel Crusader. Whether you prefer long or regular, ears or earless, you’ll find durability, comfortable eye darts and excellent coverage. We also like its forelock hole for added comfort.
Right on the Crusader’s neck, however, is the Horse Sense mask, with one of the best eye dart designs we’ve seen and excellent durability.
Best buy was a tough decision, but we like the Professional’s Choice Wrangler for a vinyl-coated mask and the Absorbine UltraShield if you prefer a softer mesh.