DON’T YOU JUST hate to go outside at dusk and get attacked by biting insects? I know I do. While their bites do sting and itch some, I’m very grateful I’m not one who gets welts all over caused by an allergic reaction.
My horse Lacey does though. Now 30, she’s been part of my family since she was 11, so I’ve spent quite a long time learning through trial and error what helps her the most.
Insect bite hypersensitivity (IBH) is an allergic reaction to the saliva of biting insects such as cullicoides (aka “no-see-ums,” midges, gnats), mosquitoes, black flies and horn flies. The bites elicit an allergic reaction from sensitive horses, resulting in hives and/or crusty patches of bumps.
Other names for the condition include sweet itch, Queensland itch and summer itch.
• Hair loss
• Cresting of the infected areas
• Profusely rubbing or biting an area
• White hair developing at the sight of the bite
• Breakage of tail or mane hair
Horses with IBH experience intense itching and often end up in an itch-scratch cycle — the more they scratch, the more they itch. Often they’ll rub out their mains and tails, and scratching can lead to permanently damaged hair follicles and thickening of the skin. Extensive scratching can cause secondary bacterial infections.
So what we do about it? Most horses with IBH can be managed with insect repellents.
Thankfully, Lacey has never had an extreme case of IBH. Still, when I see her body covered with welts, and her furiously scratching different parts of her body, I’m moved to do what I can do relieve her misery — without calling out the veterinarian to help and avoiding the vet’s bill.
One of the best deterrents I’ve found is the mesh (not nylon) fly sheet that covers her neck, body and belly. When I set out to buy one, I first checked at Olympic Peninsula Equine Network’s (OPEN) used tack store.
Low and behold, they had exactly what I was looking for donated to them. It’s slightly small on her, but other than that, it is fantastic, and Lacey really likes it when I put it on.
I also use a fly mask on her and Sunny, who doesn’t have IBH. I spray both with an insecticide repellent before putting them on.
You can also buy Mosquito Mesh fly boots for their lower legs.
For more information about OPEN and its used tack store, go to olypen equinenet.org or phone 360-207-1688. All proceeds benefit this wonderful horse rescue organization.
Here’s what I’ve learned from other horsemen and reading up on the problem:
• Adding flax or chia seed, an omega 3 fatty acid, not only promotes a beautiful-looking coat, but I think flax seeds help reduce the inflammation a little bit.
• Try to eliminate breeding grounds by dumping standing water, including dumping out and refilling water troughs on a regular basis.
• If you have a shelter or a stall, try bringing them in at dusk. A running box fan can be a tremendous help, since many biting insects — especially mages — are poor flyers and will avoid the air current, which in turn means they will stay away from your horses.
I hate using insecticides, so I’ve tried a variety of natural sprays, but in the end, I’ve found them short-lasting. So I went back to using a basic repellent like Repel-X. When the horses aren’t under their shelter/feeding area, I’ll also spray the structure.
EQyss Micro-Tek Medicated Spray is another really good deterrent and is especially helpful on areas where they’ve already scratched the hair off. In the past, Lacey has managed to scratch the hair off her belly in the girth area. So it’s a good one to use where the skin’s been rubbed raw.
I’ve found, in general, oils to be a really good deterrent. I’ll use those more on her undercarriage. First, I’ll clean the area between her teats with a damp cloth or baby wipe — which your mare will appreciate. Then, I’ll rub some softened coconut oil mixed with lemon eucalyptus on her belly, teats and along her hairlines (both mane and tail). Be careful with oil. The skin still needs to breathe, so just lightly coat the area.
Neem oil is another good natural oil that is sold for horses as a topical preventative agent, too.
By the way, natural oils work for humans also.
Those are my methods. I’d love to hear what’s also worked well for other equestrians.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Saturday of each month.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.