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Insects and Horses: Maintaining a Comfortable Summer

4 June 2015


Grazing horse in fly rug and fly maskSay the word 'midges' and sometimes you can’t help but itch!

A random fly buzzing around the living room as you’re watching your favourite programme can be irritating - but as the warmer and humid weather ignites the response for these flying insects to make their reappearance, horses too become particularly bothered by their presence. The anticipation of horse owners waiting for summer to reappear can be marred by the presence and annoyance of these biting insects.

Naturally, horses work together in their herd groups to keep themselves comfortable by standing head to tail and swishing the flies off each others' faces. Many insects are attracted to the sensitive areas on a horse’s face and often cause the eyes to weep which inadvertently attracts further unwanted visitors.

Horses kept on individual turnout will not have the luxury of a field companion to help keep them comfortable. 

Woodland or damp areas become a haven for flies and midges to breed and remain active so be aware of the impact this may have on the horse if it is kept nearby to such areas. Manure is a major attraction, so make sure horses are not kept in areas close to muck heaps.

When stabled, clean dry bedding is a major deterrent and important to ensure the horse has a place of comfort. The regular clearance of droppings from the horse’s paddock eliminates another attraction site and is also an important factor for helping to break the lifecycles of internal parasites (worms).

Any leaking water troughs should be repaired as the damp, stagnant mud becomes a height of breeding activity, particularly for midges.

Horse FlyBiting insects have particular preferences to where they bite and feed from horses. Anyone who has been bitten by a horse fly (right) will know the immediate pain and aftermath of irritation. Horse flies will most often bite and feed under the stomach, the legs, neck and wither areas.

Bites can be painful and leave traces of blood, which becomes a magnet for further insects. Lumps and/or swellings may also appear following a bite with the potential to cause irritation.

If the lump and/or swelling is located on a sensitive area, for example, where the saddle or girth sits, the horse may not be able to be ridden if signs of discomfort are shown.   

Although being only 1mm-3mm long, midges stick together in swarms becoming a larger annoyance to horses.

There are various species of midge that enjoy feeding off different areas of the horse. However, the main target areas are on the neck, top of the tail and under the stomach.

Saliva from the bite of midges can cause an allergic reaction in some horses resulting in the condition known as Sweet Itch. Intense rubbing of the mane and tail can ensue to the extent that some horses will rub themselves raw.

Stabling horses overnight from dusk to dawn when the midges are most active can help to decrease the probability of being bitten.

Fly rugs and fly masks offer some protection and relief for horses especially those who are sensitive to the fly bites and for those horses that are kept in areas where the fly/midge population is prolific. Specific rugs are available for horses with Sweet Itch.

Fly repellents can be used as a deterrent but their effectiveness can be variable especially during very hot weather where additional applications may be required (always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations).  


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