August 23, 2022 5 min read
Does your horse have bumps and lumps all over their body? They could be suffering from insect bite hypersensitivity, also known as sweet itch. Sweet itch in horses can appear in many different ways, but it typically involves inflammation or hives, itchy skin, and hair loss on the chest, shoulders, mane, tail, and midline of the abdomen. The culprit behind this miserable condition could be several different insects, but the most common one is the Culicoides midge, colloquially known as gnats or no-see-ums. Horses may get itchy enough to rub on fence posts and against hay feeders, which can have destructive consequences.
It’s easy to become frustrated when dealing with a condition like this one. While it can feel like there’s no way to prevent these tiny gnats from biting your horse, we’re here to tell you that’s not entirely true. You can change several of your stable management practices to prevent sweet itch in horses.
In order to protect your horse from the Culicoides midges, it helps to understand what type of habitat they prefer. Like many insects, such as mosquitoes, these midges rely on standing water for breeding. This could be anything from water collected in a mud puddle to a still pond to the water in the water jump. They also thrive in hot and humid environments with plenty of tall grass or trees.
You may notice them more on days when the air is still and heavy and there is no breeze. This is because gnats are notoriously weak fliers and can’t compensate for the impacts of heavy wind.
Now that we know a little more about how they operate, let’s explore how to exploit their weaknesses.
The more standing water you have around your barn, the more gnats you’ll have. Whether you have large sources of standing water, like a pond, or smaller sources like an old bucket filled with rain water, all sources of standing water give gnats more opportunities to breed.
Removing standing water can be a difficult task depending on your farm's location and setup. After all, you can’t get rid of a pond or lake as easily as you can dump out a few buckets.
Start by emptying all buckets that are not in use. Place any old buckets that you have lying around upside down so they don’t collect water. You can’t empty your horse’s water trough, but you can create artificially moving water with the help of a bubbler. Floating bubblers designed for horse farms cause the water to gently bubble and move. This won’t deter most horses and will encourage gnats to find another place to breed.
The more gnats you discourage from setting up shop on your farm, the better you’ll be able to prevent sweet itch in horses.
Fans are a common addition to many stables in the hot summer months. Most equestrians will use them to help their horses stay cool on humid days, but they can also help to prevent sweet itch in horses by protecting your horse from gnats.
As we said earlier, Culicoides midges are horrible fliers. Their tiny and lightweight bodies are easily blown around by a light breeze. Fans can quickly become the best friend of a horse with sweet itch. Turning on a fan whenever your horse is in their stall works effectively to deter gnats from landing and biting.
Mud is the bane of every horse owner's existence. It contributes to pastern dermatitis and thrush, creates slippery footing, and sucks the boots right off your feet.
Mud also means moisture, which gnats love. The more mud in your pasture, the more gnats you’ll have, and the more likely you are to find yourself with a herd of horses with sweet itch.
Reducing mud in your pastures is no small feat. There are multiple ways to go about it. You can invest in special grids that are installed in the ground. Another good way to reduce mud is by rotating your pastures so there’s less wear and tear on your footing. Many equestrians will also install gravel by their water troughs to prevent mud from developing when the trough inevitably overflows.
However you go about it, reducing mud has multiple benefits, including preventing sweet itch in horses.
Gnats are at their most active from dusk to dawn. As soon as the sun starts to go down and dew develops on the grass, the midges come out to wreak havoc. This problem has an easy solution.
To avoid sweet itch in horses, keep your horse stabled from dawn to dusk. This takes them out of the gnat-filled environment and keeps them safe from bug bites overnight. Stabling them while the dew is on the grass will also help to prevent pastern dermatitis and other moisture-related skin conditions.
Tall and overgrown pastures cause several problems. Overgrown pastures are more likely to contain harmful plants and weeds that are toxic to your horse. Tall grasses can harbor disease-causing insects like ticks or hide venomous snakes, especially if you’re in the southern United States. Dew and water collecting on the leaves of tall plants and grasses can soak your horse’s legs leading to pastern dermatitis. But besides these many reasons to mow your pastures, there is also a link between overgrown pastures and sweet itch in horses.
Tall grass or wooded areas attract gnats for a few different reasons. Flowers provide a source of shelter and food for midges and no-see-ums. The tall grass creates dark, moist areas near the ground where fungus and mold can develop, which will also attract gnats who feed on decomposing matter.
To prevent sweet itch in horses and other skin conditions, it’s recommended to mow pastures to between two and four inches in height.
If gnats cannot land on your horse’s skin, they cannot bite your horse and cause the allergic reaction that results in sweet itch in horses. The easiest ways to prevent Culicoides midges from landing on your horse is with the use of fly sheets, fly masks, and fly boots.
You can purchase sweet itch-specific fly sheets that provide optimal protection. These fly sheets will have a belly band, wide tail flap, and neck cover. To increase protection from sweet itch in horses, use a fly mask with both a nose and ears, if your horse will tolerate it.
Combining physical barriers with changing stable management practices will reduce the prevalence of sweet itch in horses on your property and save your horses and their caretakers a lot of frustration.
Unfortunately, some horses are so sensitive that all of the preventative measures in the world will not stop them from developing sweet itch. When you’re struggling to treat an active case of insect bite hypersensitivity, reach for Zarasyl Equine.
Zarasyl Equine is backed by over a decade of scientific research. The patented, novel formula is steroid and antibiotic-free. Zarasyl contains a proprietary amorphous silica with a molecular structure tailored to provide sustained delivery of orthosilicic acid to the skin. Orthosilicic acid is the bioavailable form of silicon associated with healthy connective tissue growth.