Fight On-Trail Pests

Biting flies, nats, and other pesky bugs can cause a trail ride to be a long, miserable experience. Read in this article about how you can try to keep them away and learn how to handle them when you do encounter them.

Insects are part of nature, and the love of nature is one of the primary reasons you choose to trail ride. But “natural” doesn’t always mean “beneficial.” Getting up close and personal with insects on the trail can be downright dangerous. Some can be irritating, some can be painful, and some can be hazardous to your horse’s health.

A peaceful trail ride can become a nightmare if you’re slapping and scratching. It’s even worse if you’re simultaneously trying to calm down your agitated horse. It’s no fun to ride when your horse is shaking, shuddering, twitching, itching, and making it clear that instead of walking through the creek, he’d much rather stop and lie down in the water.

Even trying to mount, dismount, or lead your horse can be dangerous if he’s swinging his head violently from side to side or reaching around to bite at a sudden itch or irritation. Plus, insect bites can carry potentially harmful, even fatal, diseases.

Here, we’ll tell you how to fight on-trail insects, starting with a rundown of where and when they bite, and the diseases they may carry. We’ll also give you a handy guide to pest-fighting resources.

Bugs, Bugs, Everywhere
You’re probably all too familiar with the insect pests in your own area, and, being a savvy trail rider, you probably try to schedule your rides to avoid your local bug seasons. If you’re planning a trail-riding vacation on unfamiliar turf, learn which insects are likely to be a problem there, and at what times.

Trail riding near Houston, Texas, in summer means mosquitoes, but if you’re planning to enjoy a summer getaway trail ride in lovely New England, prepare to battle black flies. Heading westward into the high country might seem like a possible summer escape, but be warned: If spring features a major snowmelt, the resulting standing water will create a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

To find out the bugs you might encounter, ask local trail riders. Try to get information from someone who lives at or very near your exact destination, even if you already have a general idea of which insects are in that region. The insect population in any state can vary widely from county to county, and can also vary within a particular county.

Also, visit, which provides helpful information about biting insects and their prevalence around the country at various seasons.


When they bite:In the daytime and nighttime, from spring until after the year’s first killing frost.

Where they bite: Anywhere they can reach. They particularly like to attach to the base of your horse’s mane and tail, to the insides of his ears, and to his inner thighs.

Fight them with: Constant awareness (inspect your horse closely, several times per day), prevention through the use of insect repellents (ticks remain active long after fly season ends), and prompt, careful removal. (For how to remove a tick, see below.)

Disease they carry:Lyme disease,a multisystem inflammatory disease caused by a bacterial infection. Both you and your horse are vulnerable to this disease.

Tick removal is tricky, because ticks have tightly gripping jaws that attach to your horse; you have to remove the tick’s head along with its body. You can coat the tick with a product that will kill it (such as rubbing alcohol, baby oil, or petroleum jelly), but you’ll still need to remove it.

Tick removal doesn’t have to be performed immediately- ticks need 12 to 24 hours in place before they can transmit Lyme disease, so take the time to do the job right. Using tweezers or your fingers (gloves are advised), grasp the tick without squeezing it. Pull it gently and persistently upward, out of and away from your horse’s skin, then disinfect the spot.

When they bite:
Some will bite all day long, some are most active at sunup and sundown, and many feed in the cooler hours between dusk and dawn.

Where they bite: Anywhere they can reach.

Fight them with: Products containing DEET.

Disease they carry:West Nile virus (WNV), a potentially fatal disease that multiplies in an affected horse’s blood system and infects the brain, where it interferes with the central nervous system. Equine symptoms include fever, weakness, hind-limb paralysis, uncoordination, convulsions, coma, and death. Fortunately, you can now vaccinate your horse against this virus, but the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective; mosquito repellents and good mosquito management are still recommended. And keep in mind that you’re also susceptible to mosquito-borne WNV.

SandFlies/Black Flies
When they bite: In the daytime.

Where they bite: Anywhere they can reach.

Fight them with: Products containing DEET or citronella oil, plus a coating of petroleum jelly inside your horse’s ears.

Disease they carry:Vesicular stomatitis(VS), another viral disease that affects both horses and humans. Equine symptoms are fever, mouth sores, and face-rubbing; humans typically develop flu-like symptoms.

Horseflies/Deer Flies/Stable Flies
When they bite:
In the daytime.

Where they bite:Anywhere they can reach – and they can bite through fly sheets and stable sheets. Painful bites can cause your normally calm horse to go out of control.

Fight them with: Your hand or a flat leather “popper.” Hitting them hard or pinching them will kill them, but spray-on, wipe-on, and roll-on fly repellents don’t seem to impress them much.

Disease they carry:Equine infectious anemia (EIA), also known asswamp fever, a chronic degenerative disease caused by a retrovirus similar to the one that causes HIV in humans. Biting flies can transfer EIA from horse to horse.

Biting Gnats/No-see-ums/Midges
When they bite: Early morning, late evening, and all night long.

Where they bite:Primarily your horse’s ears, chest, and belly.

Fight them with:Direct topical application of wipes, sprays, or roll-on products featuring repellents and insecticides (pyrethrins, pyrethroids, or both).

Problems they cause:Anything from mild annoyance to severe skin irritation to major blood loss. Take these tiny, blood-sucking pests seriously, especially if your horse is surrounded by large clouds of them.Anemia(a deficiency of red blood cells and/or hemoglobin) from blood loss can lead to death.

Biting Gnats/No-see-ums/Midges
When they bite:Early morning, late evening, and all night long.

Where they bite:Primarily your horse’s ears, chest, and belly.

Fight them with:Direct topical application of wipes, sprays, or roll-on products featuring repellents and insecticides (pyrethrins, pyrethroids, or both).

Problems they cause: Anything from mild annoyance to severe skin irritation to major blood loss. Take these tiny, blood-sucking pests seriously, especially if your horse is surrounded by large clouds of them. Anemia(a deficiency of red blood cells and/or hemoglobin) from blood loss can lead to death.

Know Your Enemy
Ticks hang out in tall grass and in the woods; mosquitoes, flies, and gnats all prefer damp, moist environments. Wherever you ride, you’ll encounter bugs. Here’s a rundown of common biting and stinging insects – when they bite, where they bite, how to fight them, and the diseases they may transmit to you and your horse.


When they sting: In the summer months. Be doubly careful toward the end of summer when the need to defend their nests will make these territorial insects more aggressive than usual.

Where they sting: Any exposed area of your horse’s body (and yours).

Fight them with: Awareness and avoidance. Avoid bright-colored repellents. For instance, if you normally apply smears of Farnam’s SWAT, use the clear formula instead of the pink one. Keep an eye out for nests and hives. Wasp/hornet nests and bee hives may be found in dead/hollow trees and logs, and hanging from tree branches. Nests may also be in the ground or dug into the stream banks. Stick to wide, well-used trails; late summer is the wrong time to leave the trail and go exploring.

Your Pest-Fighting Arsenal
Before you leave the barn, give your horse every possible advantage in the battle against biting bugs. Start by grooming him thoroughly, so that the products you use will give better coverage. There’s no sense in applying insect repellent to dirt and loose hair. Then bring on your arsenal, both chemical and physical. For optimal effectiveness, follow these tips.

Select wisely.Choose your chemical fly-control substance according to your individual needs. If your horse needs leg protection, or already has some bites or other wounds, a thicker gel product may be more effective than a thinner spray-on. If you’re heading out for a full day’s ride, you’ll get more long-lasting protection from an oil-based product than from a water-based one. Water- and sweat-resistant repellents, such as Farnam’s Endure and Absorbine’s DuraGuard, are also coming onto the equine scene.

Tack up first.Apply the productaftertacking up, so that you won’t waste product or put your horse’s tack on top of chemicals. The heat, pressure, and friction that build up under tack could combine with those chemicals to cause skin irritation.

Apply with care.Read the manufacturer’s directions about how best to apply the product, not only whether to use it full-strength or diluted, but how much of it to use, and exactly where on your horse’s body to use it. Some insect repellents lose their effectiveness after a few hours, and others are washed away by sweat, so read the labels carefully. If you’re preparing for a long, hot ride, carry a roll-on or wipe-on product and re-apply as needed.

Rider Tips
Your horse isn’t the only one in need of protection from biting insects; you also need to keep them away. You don’t want to be distracted and uncomfortable on rides, and you’re also susceptible to insect-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Here are some bugs-off tips.
• Dress for trail-riding success by wearing light-colored, long sleeved-shirts, long pants tucked into your boots, and a hat with a wide brim. Consider clothing with built-in repellent, such as that from Ex Officio (800/644-7303; and L.L. Bean (800/441-5713;
• Cover exposed skin surfaces with your favorite insect repellent, and carry some with you to re-apply as needed.
• If mosquitoes are a problem, use a repellent that contains DEET, and ride at midday rather than at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
• Frequently check yourself for ticks, especially your hairline and just behind your ears.
• Avoid wearing things that attract bees, such as bright-colored clothing and cologne. Wear earth tones, which bees don’t find appealing. Avoid flower- and citrus-scented shampoo, conditioner, and even repellents when going on late-summer trail rides.

Don’t fight your horse.If your horse hates the feel and sound of spray around his head, don’t fight with him. Either use a roll-on product – such as Farnam’s Endure in roll-on form – or apply spray to a clean stable rag or a wet-wipe, and calmly wipe the product on your horse’s head, around, inside, and outside his ears, and under his eyes. (Tip:Avoid applying chemical repellent over your horse’s eyes, where it could run down and irritate his eyes’ sensitive tissues.)

Get physical.Fly masks, bonnets, sheets, and leg wraps can help keep biting insects away from your horse. Some fly masks come with ear covers and nose shields that provide near full-face coverage. Consider getting afly cape– essentially, a mesh version of a quarter sheet – designed to protect your horse’s sides and rump while he’s under saddle. Also available are Horse Fly Tush Covers, patterned rump covers designed specifically for trail riders.

If you ride in a particularly bug-prone area, consider investing in the Crusader Bug Armor, full-body insect barrier from Cashel Company. This two-piece “mesh armor” ties to your bridle and saddle, providing coverage in front of and behind the saddle, and effectively screening your horse from just behind his ears to his hocks. Covering your horse with a full-face fly mask and draping him with front-and-back mesh screening may make you feel as though you’re about to audition for Medieval Times dinner theater, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Combine your arsenal.For maximum protection, spray chemical repellents on physical barriers, such as fly capes, sheets, and leg wraps (not masks; you don’t want to expose your horse’s eyes to harsh chemicals).

Whisk away.If you don’t mind holding something in addition to your reins while you ride, you can carry a fly whisk (a section of horse tail hair attached to a leather-covered wooden handle). You can also hangshoo flies– tassels made from horsehair or narrow leather strings – from your horse’s bridle, breastcollar, cinch, saddle, and stirrups. Shoo flies discourage flies from landing. (If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many tassels hanging off Arabian horses in Native Costume classes, a day on the trail with a set of shoo flies will make everything clear.)

Go natural.Your horse’s own mane and tail are effective fly whisks, so leave them loose. The hair on his ears, inside and outside, helps protect him from insects, so if you’re thinking of “tidying his ears” with the clippers, don’t. If his ear hair is already clipped, apply a fly bonnet or fly mask with ears. Or, carefully rub insect-repellent lotion, gel, or cream on (and in) his ears. In a pinch, coat the insides of his ears with a layer of petroleum jelly to create an insect barrier.

Stay high and dry.When you stop for lunch, keep your horse in a high, dry, breezy area – and, if possible, in the shade.

Trail riding is one of the most pleasurable activities that you and your horse can enjoy together. To promote on-trail health, safety and comfort, be aware of the dangers of insect pests, and take all possible precatusions to protect your horse and yourself from them.

Pest-Controll Resources

Chemical Repellents

Absorbine div. of W.F. Young
(800) 628-9653;
Farnam Companies Inc.

(800) 234-2269;
(800) 558-1033;
Jeffers Equine

(800) 533-3377;
KV Vet Supply

(800) 423-8211;
Pyranha Inc.

(800) 231-2966;
State Line Tack
(888) 839-9640;
United Vet Equine

(800) 3286652;
Valley Vet Supply

(800) 419-9524;

Physical Barriers
(800) 842-5837;
Cashel Company

(800) 333-2202;
Horse Fly Tush Covers

(888) 440-8567;
Hug Coverings

(866) 484-3487;

Pest-Controll Resources

Jeffers Equine
(800) 533-3377;
KV Vet Supply
(800) 423-8211;
Kensington Protective Products

(877) 469-1240;
Libertyville Saddle Shop

(800) 872-3353;
Saratoga Horseworks, Ltd
(800) 848-1914;

(800) 365-1311;
State Line Tack

(888) 839-9640;
United Vet Equine

(800) 328-6652;
Valley Vet Supply

(800) 419-9524;

Shoo Flies
Chick’s Discount Saddlery
(800) 444-2441;
Colorado Horsehair

(800) 595-2644;
Cowboy Showcase
Hitching Post Supply
(800) 689-9971;

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