Bug bite sensitivity can be the worst! Just as people are individuals and some of us seem to be “tastier” to insects or react more to their bites, the same goes for our equine companions. Prevention of bites in the first place is obviously the best, but also the hardest to achieve. Here are some tips on how to prevent or decrease insect bites on your horse:
1. Keep horses indoors during peak insect activity times. Dawn and dusk are the most active time periods for insects. By simply keeping your horse in the barn at these times, you can hopefully avoid the worst of the bites. Throughout the day, the flies prefer to stay outside so having a run-in shelter gives the horses a place to go in to escape some of the insects.
2. Don’t breed your own supply of flies and other biting insects such as gnats and mosquitoes!
-Good manure management, both around your barn/shelters and in your pasture, can make a huge difference. Ensuring manure is cleaned up and large manure piles are kept at a reasonable size can help a lot. Dragging pastures/paddocks to ensure manure droppings are frequently broken up to prevent insect breeding as much as possible can also be key (and can help with other parasite control too!).
-There are many different types of traps and tapes that can help keep fly populations under control. These can be especially helpful in barns/shelters. Larger traps can be used out in the pasture to control large horse flies. Here is a great horse and deer fly trap made in Wisconsin. Here is another version of a horse/deer fly trap. Some of these can even be fun DIY projects and made for a very budget friendly price. There are also “fly predators” that can be ordered for application to your manure pile to lower your breeding fly population.
-Make sure that standing water sources that provide prime mosquito breeding grounds are dried out. Water tanks or infrequently used water buckets can also breed mosquitoes.
s. There are water tank additives that are safe for your horse to drink that can be added to large tanks to prevent mosquito breeding, but just cleaning and scrubbing the tank out once a week can be just as effective (and ensures fresh, clean drinking water to boot!).
3. Frequent fly spray applications can make a big difference for your horse, especially if targeted around prime insect activity times of dawn and dusk. For really sensitive horses, this author hasn’t found that the really expensive “sweat and water proof” sprays work any better or need to be applied any less often. So sticking with the more budget friendly sprays for frequent application may work perfectly fine.
4. Consider fly sheets and fly leg shields. These can be great and provide an actual physical barrier between your horse and the biting bugs. You can even apply your fly spray directly to the sheet to limit how much spray has to be applied directly to your horse. The sheet should be checked often for correct fit, loose or hanging straps, and damage. Additionally, beware they can cause some horses to sweat a lot and may create skin rubs on some horses. This author has had the best luck with the softer, more fabric like material fly sheets (instead of the more plastic like mesh ones) but they do tend to get rips a bit more often if the horse rubs on anything. If one style or material doesn’t work for your horse, don’t be afraid to try another.
5. Biting bugs do NOT like the wind in their hair, but your horse sure does. By keeping the air moving, you not only help keep your horse cool in warm weather, you can cut down the insect activity dramatically. If you have safe access to electricity in your barn or shelters, you can try adding a fan for airflow. You can even use a timer to have the fan turn on and off throughout the day or night to save on electricity during non-peak insect hours. Just make sure any fan you use has a closed motor so it doesn’t suck in dust and create a fire hazard.
6. If using all these preventative measures still isn’t enough, there are also medication based relief options. Bug bite hypersensitivity can sometimes be controlled with adding Omega-3 fatty acid supplements to the diet to help decrease skin inflammation and improve coat quality. Additionally, some horses benefit from an oral antihistamine to try to reduce the amount of reaction and itchiness the horse develops from the bites. Lastly, when all else fails, we sometimes have to use steroids to control a horse’s itchy outbreaks. However, steroids are not a minor medication and do come with some risk and possible side effects including but not limited to laminitis, excessive drinking/urination, and ulcers. Because of this, we always do our best to reserve steroids for really bad reactions and try the other preventatives and treatments first.