(c) 1994, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine

By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

They range from pesky flies to bloodthirsty ticks. Insects pests are all around us. While most are mere annoyances, some insect encounters can prove to be a health or life threatening experience for you or your horse. This segment deals with common insect pests, what they can do and what you can do about them.


What animal experience would be complete without flies? We're all familiar with stable flies which bite horses most often on the legs. Horses will run to avoid these vexations or will endlessly stamp their feet and wear themselves out when they should be resting. A similar looking airborne invader which can cause a variety of problems is the common housefly. This fly is a host for stomach worms, which are hideous invaders which among other things are responsible for summer sores.

Out in the field there are numerous problem flies. Many, such as horse flies, black flies and deer flies, live near streams and marshy areas. Horse flies are powerful fliers who can target a horse from up to a mile away. Their bites are vicious, some being able to bite through a stable sheet. No wonder that a horse who is attacked by a swarm would tend to bolt, buck, and even roll while wearing a saddle to escape or scrape off these pests. Tiny black flies have been known to attack in numbers sufficient to kill helpless livestock.

Face flies are commonly found around cattle and may attack nearby horses. Face flies "hit and run", making them difficult to control. Continual head tossing while in "cow country" can often be attributed to face flies.

Blow flies are typically found swarming around dead animals. In southwestern states their notorious cousins, screw worms, dine on living flesh which they reach through wound openings. Infested wounds will often chronically bleed and give off a distinctive odor. Screw worm infestations are difficult to eradicate and call for veterinary attention.


Mosquitos, aside from being irritating, are the primary cause of equine encephalomyelitis. Some horses may become sensitized to mosquito bites, developing large welts which can affect the horse's rideability. Fly repellents have limited effectiveness against mosquitos. In heavily infested areas, stable sheets can offer more reliable protection.

Buffalo flies, sand flies ("no-see-ums") and punkies are considered fierce biters, and due to their minute size are difficult to see and defend against. Most varieties live in aquatic and marshy areas. The Valley Black Gnat, abundant in the western Sacramento Valley, lives in cracks and pores in adobe soil and has a bad bite which produces a long lasting, inflammatory swelling.


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The best way to deal with insect problems is to prevent their occurrence. Prepare yourself for typical local problems. When riding out of your home area, size up the situation. Streams and marshy areas generally include biting flying insects. Brushy areas generally include ticks. Pack your provisions accordingly and also prepare for the unexpected.

Good fly sprays, accompanied by fly wipes on the trail, will help ward off most offenders. Once a horse starts sweating the effectiveness of most repellents greatly diminishes. Proper wraps not only help support legs, but also protect them from stable flies. Sheets can protect against mosquitoes and gnat-sized biting flies, particularly around dusk and dawn when these pests are most active.

Fly masks can help reduce the impact of face flies as well as mosquitos, however one should be careful riding with a fly mask, ensuring that there is enough outdoor light for the horse to see through the mask, and that the mask fits properly and doesn't impair vision due to catching eyelashes, etc. Roll- ons and fly wipes can be effective to repel face flies when the light is too poor to ride with fly masks on.


Ticks can be such a serious problem that they have caused many neglected pasture horses to die from anemia. Ticks carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Tick Paralysis and Lyme disease which can be transmitted to humans.

Tick problems are exceptionally bad in mountain foothills. Most tick problems in horses appear around late winter and into early spring, however any venture into tall grasses and brushy areas may result in a few of these pests catching a ride.

ticks are prevalent in the south and southwest. These parasites attach themselves inside horses' ears, just below the hairline. There they will molt and may remain for as long as 6 to 7 months. Animals with recurrent tick problems may also have lice. Fortunately, insecticide treatment for both is essentially the same.

Ticks can be avoided and removed by sponging the horse with lindane dip. A properly mixed and applied dip can control ticks for a period of two weeks to a month. Lindane also controls lice. Lindane must be diluted properly, according to the label, and I would avoid applying lindane to the saddle area of a horse just before a ride. Trailers and stalls may need to be similarly sprayed to prevent reinfestation from ticks which have dropped off the horses.

Note: Since this article was originally published, Lindane has been removed from the list of insecticides approved for sale without a permit.


The best way to remove a tick is to prevent one from settling in for a meal. Inspect yourself and your horse regularly when in tick country. While there are many conflicting suggestions in how to remove embedded ticks, keep in mind your first priority is not to squeeze the tick and cause it to inject its potentially disease-laden fluids into the host. While a Lindane drench is practical for horses, you might consider removing a tick from yourself with a pair of tweezers. Use slow, steady upward pressure to remove the body, head and mouthparts as a whole. If part of the tick's head breaks off in the skin, see a health professional.


A genuine danger to the rider in tick country is Lyme disease. This arthritic-like disease is found throughout North America and attacks humans, horses and pets. Outbreaks can become significant. One farm study in a section of New Jersey found 60% of the horses tested positive for Lyme disease antibodies.

A tick called Ixodes dammini carries spirochetes which are very similar to those which cause syphilis. Both Lyme disease and syphilis spirochetes cause an initial skin lesion which disappears. Both develop into diseases which ebb and flow, appear to go into remission but which inevitably return. Both can affect the same organ systems, bones, joints, the nervous system, the heart and eyesight.

Ticks are more likely to carry Lyme disease in June and July. Once contracted by humans or animals, the disease typically takes several months to manifest detectable symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they vary widely and are often confused with other diseases.

60% of Lyme disease victims exhibit a red, chronic, migrating rash. In classic cases the center of the rash clears leaving a red circle and in some cases concentric rings. About 60 - 80% of rash victims also experience flu like symptoms. "Stage 2" symptoms include neurological and cardiac problems ranging from unexplained changes in heart rhythm to seizures and partial paralysis. Finally "Stage 3" symptoms appear which are arthritic in nature.

Since there are enough symptom variations to fill a book, Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose. A rider or horse who experiences repeated unexplained and unrelated symptoms some months after receiving tick bites should be considered a possible Lyme disease victim. There are tests for Lyme disease antibodies and with early detection and oral medications such as tetracycline, the spirochetes can be killed off.

Post script on ticks: Ticks can be a problem for pastured horses in many regions. Removal of excess brush and tall weeds can help, but they can be persistent pests. Kameron Price posted the following suggestion to the "Wildhorses" list which caught my eye:

    "Ticks are a problem no matter how much chemical you use... We have lowered the ticks on 40 acres with guinea fowl. If you can stand them, they are ferocious on the ticks; eat 'em up, yum! yum!"
    Kameron Price
A good site we found for tick identification is provided by The Bug Shoppe.

Red Fire Ants:

Bommie Day in Florida posted this idea to help control red fire ants:
    "Its that time of year and I know that there must be people on the list that have problems with the red fire ants in their pastures and property. This is the non poisonous method that I use and it really works. What I use is Diatomaceous earth. This is the same product used for pool filters. It is cheaper to buy the pool kind then the kind for gardens or listed for ant control. You just sprinkle it on the ant beds. You have to be persistent but the beds will get smaller and smaller. I learned this method when I took a Rhea/Emu/Ostrich seminar as red ants can kill these birds which I used to raise. Hope that this helps those of you who want to go the natural way."
    Bonnie Day


The Natural Health First Aid Guide offers the following suggestions for treating ordinary insect bites and stings with supplies which might be in a cantle bag, meal provisions or growing in the wild. Tea tree oil, also used as an insect repellant, makes a good antibiotic and antiseptic when used full strength. Fresh aloe can be obtained by breaking off a small tip of a plant leaf and daubing it onto bite or sting sites. Lemon juice and vinegar can aid in reducing inflammation. A couple of vitamin C tablets, ground up into a moist paste, is also mentioned as effective. Finally, vitamin E, applied topically, has been a long time popular antioxidant to aid healing of skin wounds.

Common sense and some preparation can help make adventures into pest infested country somewhat tolerable affairs. On the other hand, lack of concern for these tiny scourges can wind you up in a miserable, itchy or painful situation... or worse!

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.

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