Repelling Insects, Naturally
A good mane and tail will do wonders for discouraging flies. Nature provides other help too.
"Lilliputs Warpaint" Photo by Georgia Taylor
Bugs, flies, midges, mosquitoes; why are our horses plagued by them? Whether we like it or not, insects are just another part of nature. But each horse that is pestered by these little beasties can, thanks to nature, also enjoy some relief. Essential oils (natural aromatic essences from flowers and plants) provide a unique approach and are chosen to complement the individual. Also helpful are herbs and supplemental nutrients.
While no horse will be - or should be - totally free from biting insects, a healthy horse tends to be less tasty and appealing to them. A healthy horse is also less susceptible to the problems these pests could cause. So your first line of defence is to keep your horse’s insides working properly. If your horse is not at his optimum health, he can give off detectable odours that attract bugs, similar to how odors of decay alert and attract bugs.
It is important to minimise the intake of feeds high in chemical residues and unnatural feed supplements; these slow the horse’s metabolism. The topical use of cortisone based drugs eventually weakens the skin and leaves horses even more vulnerable to attack. You may have to use them in an emergency, but long term use is best avoided.
Rosehips are a very versatile herb, and adding the granules to your feed daily can assist your horse to be less attractive. Rosehips are high in vitamin C in a form that assists the liver to detoxify, which in turn encourages a clean internal system. They are also high in copper, and one theory developed by Pat Coleby (author of Natural Horse Care) suggests a copper deficiency is more likely in darker horses, so if your horse is attracting a few too many bugs this summer, he may benefit from supplementing rosehips.
Coleby goes on to say “Horses receiving the correct amount of copper and other minerals do not have trouble with bots, and in most cases they do not even lay eggs at all.” Other herbs that are rich sources of copper are skullcap, sage leaves, white oak bark, yucca root and gotu kola. Some of these herbs could also be utilised in an herbal strip along your horse’s fence line.
Two other supplements that can be useful as feed additives that are high in copper and useful when your intention is to repel bugs are brewers yeast and pumpkin seeds. You can also add apple cider vinegar to help balance your horse’s pH levels and it can also be added to a wash or spray as an external repellent.
Garlic is another popular herb people use to repel bugs. It is high in sulphur which has its health benefits and sometimes less desirable side effects. When giving garlic many owners give too much, and in some cases when they give garlic at the same time as drugs prescribed by their vet, or they have been giving large doses long term, a vulnerable horse can develop a sensitivity to this herb. With that in mind, I find a heaped tablespoon every second day is usually sufficient with most horses to achieve a bug repelling scent from your horse’s pores. In the situation where you inherit a horse with a lice infection, you can increase this dose up to two tablespoons a day (providing the horse does not have ulcers in his gut) to help get rid of the lice, and then return to the recommended dose.
Itch from midges is one infestation that is almost impossible to help. The owner with a horse with sweet itch has to vary the approach as the bugs seem to figure out the strategy very quickly and soon return in many cases. Herbs that help the skin, worth trialing, are cleavers, nettles, burdock, pau d’arco, astragalus, seaweed, or echinacea. Your horse’s reaction to the midges is a simple allergic reaction, so your focus in dealing with this issue is to build a healthy immune system with the use of alterative herbs such as these.
Robert McDowell (author of Natural Horsekeeping) suggests aloe vera to relieve itches and stinging bites. You can use the inside of the cut fresh plant or buy a pure gel from a health food store. Dock leaves are acidic and will neutralise alkaline stings such as that of a wasp to crush a fresh leaf in your hand then rub onto the bite, whereas bee stings are acidic and are relieved by alkaline substances such as bicarbonate of soda. For itchy skin, he suggests rubbing in freshly crushed chickweed or the use of a chickweed balm.
Topical application leads us to the use of aromatherapy. In most cases, quality essential oils are safe, but their effectiveness depends upon the individual horse. How much the horse sweats and the scent of his own sweat can have a bearing on how long the scent of the essential oil continues to repel an insect, and in some cases what repels a fly on one horse may attract the same fly on a different horse. Whether it be the scent of your horse, his tasty blood chemistry or his environment, what works for your horse may not work well for your neighbour's horse.
Some people do mix up generic chemical products and use the 'fools' measure, that extra sloosh just for luck, and this is where you can get toxicity problems or skin reactions. Do not add essential oil blends to chemical or other fly repellents; this can also cause horses to get sick or have severe reactions.
You don't need a lot of the essential oil; a 3 to 5% dilution of essential oils in your carrier is enough. However the evaporation rate is fairly quick with essential oils, which leads to the necessity of regularly applications. Sometimes adding a little shampoo or vegetable oil to the liquid will slow down the evaporation rate of your essential oil blend. As each essential oil has its own evaporation rate, some evaporate in ten minutes while others may take up to four hours. This is where the art of blending can extend the life of your application. Some people like to use balm rather than a spray to also slow down the evaporation rate.
A horse's olfactory sense does not fatigue like ours does, so your repellent mix will be inhaled by your horse constantly and smelling for its duration, so it is polite to ask the horse if he likes it.
Caroline Ingraham (author of Aromatherapy for Animals) makes an interesting observation with horses and flies. She observed that flies would hang around the area of the horse that had stagnant energy, if flies gravitate to the stomach area she looks at clearing blocks in the stomach meridian; if they are mainly around the eyes she connects this with the liver and offers the horse essential oils to support the liver. This further supports the individuality of horses, and why one essential oil may work on one horse and not on another.
She noted that horses treated with aromatics, either orally (please only do so under a trained aromatherapist’s supervision) or by inhalation that flies would often disappear.
Essential oils with repelling qualities include any of your citrus essential oils (but be careful if exposing your horse to sunlight as most of these are photosensitive); eucalyptus and lavender, or an essential oil high in sharp tones like basil, geranium, marjoram, frankincense, palmarosa, and any your horse selects to balance his internal health that day. Keep your selection simple as you may have to vary your application each day.
I don't use citronella; there are too many contraindications such as photosensitivity and skin reactions in susceptible horses and in some cases blistering. I suggest if you choose to include citronella in a blend to repel insects that you keep the dilution much lower than is seen in many blends shown on the internet for instance; often 20 drops in a pint of carrier is sufficient.
Tea tree essential oil is one to keep handy if your horse does get bitten by bugs. It is anti pruritic, which means it will take the itch out of most annoying skin irritations. Don’t overuse this essential oil - a 1% dilution is often enough to bring relief. For the more cautious owner, chamomile tea washed over the affected area will bring relief.
Finally, good management deters biting insects. In some cases we may have to compromise the ideal and rug our horse with a light mesh rug when the bugs are excessive in the biting season; some owners also make up a shade-cloth boot for their horses’ legs. It is essential to clean manure from the paddock or yard to discourage flies from breeding. Plant herbs like garlic, tansy, citrus scented geraniums, lavender, rue and wormwood around your barn.