Fly Spray Away!

As summer blooms and flying pests return, be sure you and your horse don't inhale a toxic mist. Yes, I'm talking about the fly-repellent spray that's part of your grooming kit during the warm months.

For those of you who live in climates where freezing temperatures kill off the flying pests for several months of the year, well, there has to be some silver lining to those snowy days. We've had a string of such mild winters here in southern Arizona that some people probably never stopped spraying.

But whether you're spraying your horse year-round or only for a few months, I urge caution and common sense in choosing what to spray. Remember the purpose of the product you apply to your horse – like those you might apply to keep pests away from your own body – is to repel flying insects, not to kill them on contact. Chemicals that will kill a bug are, by definition, toxic to living things, of which both you and your horse are examples.


From a can of popular-brand aerosol "insecticide" used on horses:

"Avoid contact with skin, eyes or clothing. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. Remove contaminated clothing and wash clothing before reuse."

How many of us wash our hands or clothing immediately after contact with the spray we use on our horses? None!? If you shouldn't wear clothing contaminated with the spray, should your horse "wear" it on his coat?

More from the same can:

First Aid
If on skin or clothing:

  • Take off contaminated clothing.
  • Rinse skin immediately with plenty of water for 15-20 minutes
  • Call a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice.

So before you buy a commercial chemical fly spray, please take the time to read the label and be sure you're getting repellent, not "insecticide" or "pesticide." Peruse the warning text, which on many products takes up more space than the directions for use or any marketing statements. If the packaging cautions that you should avoid inhaling the product or getting it on your skin, do you really want to douse your horse in the stuff?

I stopped using the oily chemical-based sprays more than 20 years ago for two reasons. First, I was teaching a whole lot of children and noticed it was difficult for the youngest ones to judge how far away to hold the bottle to just lightly mist the repellent on the horses. They'd get the nozzle too close – and leave it there too long – and saturate some areas down to the skin, which concerned me because as the body's largest organ, the skin can transmit substances into the tissue.

Second, I had developed such a sensitivity to the commercial sprays that I'd walk past a horse that had been sprayed and feel like a truck was parked on my chest for the next several hours. Could be because I grew up in a rural area where agricultural chemicals were common. We used to stand in the front yard while the crop duster sprayed the cornfield across the road. Yikes!

Or maybe it has something to do with the many times as a kid that I rubbed the same Wipe fly repellent on myself as I put on my horss. Goodness knows what substances lurk in my liver, but I suspect at least a few nasties with a long half life.

Starting with a recipe a friend inherited from an old-time Thoroughbred breeder, I created a spray that was kid- and horse-friendly and didn't leave me breathless and nauseated. I felt that it worked as well as the chemicals and it was waaaay cheaper. I've tinkered with the recipe a bit over the past two decades – including an update just last summer – but I still think it's generally as effective at repelling the common barn flies, mosquitoes and gnats as any commercial repellent I've ever tried.

I also stopped using a certain well-known fly repellent ointment after a vet told me about digging pink goo out of the ears of several horses whose well-meaning owners had slathered it on so thickly that it melted and ran down into the ear canal.

The standard warning that seems to be on most fly spray containers:

Hazards to Humans and Domestic Animals

Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through skin. Avoid breathing of vapors or spray mist. Avoid contact with skin and eyes.


I was always a little leery of that stuff anyway because the label used to warn that you should only apply it while wearing rubber gloves. Something wrong with that picture, for sure, but at that time my horses lived surrounded by irrigated farmland and the associated gnats and mosquitoes would eat the insides of their ears 'til they were bloody.

After the pink goo lecture from my vet, I set about to concoct my own ear- protecting, bug-repelling ointment that wouldn't make either me or my horses glow in the dark when we're old. I came up with a winner using simple ingredients and the bonus was that unlike the pink stuff I had to slather on every day, I only had to apply my homemade ointment every two to three days to provide my horses relief.

It has been very interesting to see the recent emergence of "natural" fly repellent sprays marketed for horses. I've read a lot of labels and used a couple that I really like except for the price, so I pay attention to what people are using. Last summer I was in a couple of barns where the horses were being sprayed with an aerosol product I hadn't seen before. Curious, I picked up a can and read the label.

Turns out these well-meaning folks were using a "farm and home" insecticide, something intended to spray on surfaces and in enclosed spaces to kill bugs, not just to repel them. Though some do instruct users to spray them directly on horses, these products are definitely not meant to be sprayed onto horses, humans, dogs, etc.


From a name-brand spray/ wipe-on "pesticide" used on horses:

"Wear long sleeved shirt, long pants, shoes plus socks and chemical resistant gloves (made out of any waterproof material). Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after using and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, using tobacco or using the toilet."

Really? Put on your haz-mat suit and be sure to take a nice, long decontamination shower after you put this stuff all over your horse's body? Who does that?

The same label warns:

May be toxic or potentially fatal if applied to or ingested by cats. Accidental applications to cats and/or grooming a recently treated dog may result in tremors and/or uncoordinated muscle movement. If this occurs, immediate veterinary are should be provided."


Your clue is right there on the label that says "Insecticide" instead of "Repellent." Anything with the suffix "-icide" is meant to kill living things, of which your horse is one. Here's the exact text from the label of the first aerosol I saw being used daily on horses:

If it's not meant to contact skin, clearly this stuff isn't meant to be sprayed ONTO horses (or humans). Flies, mosquitoes and gnats are an irritant at best and a vector for infectious diseases at worst. But neither your horse nor you will be healthier after a daily dose of noxious chemicals, so please think and read before you spray.

The internet makes it easier to research the ingredients in the products you use in your home and barn. Here's an informative article that details a few or the ingredients you might find in insect repellents. (I do disagree with the author about the efficacy of peppermint EO and I have not experienced any adverse side effects from using citronella EO).

Want to experiment with natural insect repellents for your horse, your home and your garden? Here are some resources to get you started:

And remember, topicals aren't the only way to fight flying pests. If your horse is especially plagued by flies or other insects, you might want to take a more holistic approach and look at the whole horse. Supplements, herbs and even energy work might be useful tools.

And with the money you save on chemical sprays you can afford another natural approach that really works - fly predators. Best fly control by far.

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