Your horse's head is a vulnerable target during bug season. Face flies seeking mucous-membrane moisture irritate his eyes and can trigger allergies or infections. Biting flies attack the thin, tender skin, sometimes working out of sight under his jaw. Voracious gnats creep into his ears and leave crusty scabs and discomfort behind. Fly repellent, which helps you keep insects away from most of your horse's body, is a challenge to apply to his head and ears for full protection.
An alternative strategy is a fly mask. Here's what it can do, if it fits well and is clean and in good shape:
- Allows your horse to see out while face flies can't get in to irritate his eyes.
- Keeps gnats out of his ears (if style includes ear coverings), always a plus but especially beneficial if you clip his ears for showing.
- Protects sun-sensitive eyes and skin (such as pink skin under large white facial markings) from harmful rays. Some designs come with extended muzzle for extra coverage.
Find the Mask that Fits
Here are the critical points to check for fit:
Muzzle: The mask's lower edge needs to reach one to one and a half inches below the bottom of your horse's cheekbone; otherwise the cheekbone creates a gap under the edge of the mask through which flies can easily pass. A mask whose lower edge ends on, not below, the cheekbone can cause rubs as well. Greater facial coverage reduces the amount of skin on which face flies (which will hang around even if they can't get at his eyes) can crawl, and protects more facial skin from sunlight.
The edge of the mask doesn't need to be so snug against the skin that an insect can't creep under it; you should be able to slip your finger easily between the mask and your horse's muzzle. Elastic around the lower edge of the mask is useful because it provides some "give" for jaw movement when your horse is grazing outside. (Flies that encounter the edge of the mask don't try to push underneath it; they typically crawl up over the mask on the outside.)
Throatlatch: This area can get uncomfortably tight when your horse picks his head up unless you allow a couple of fingers' width between the mask edge and his throatlatch. As with the muzzle, you should also be able to slide your finger easily between the edge of the mask and his skin at the side of his head. In addition to chafing and binding, a too-tight throatlatch fastened with Velcro? or other types of hook-and-loop straps used on most fly masks will tend to come undone from the constant pulling.
Ears: If your horse is sensitive about having his ears handled, he may be less bothered by a fly mask with ear protectors that slip softly over his ears than by a design with holes through which his ears must be threaded. Check the ear area to be sure the mask's ear coverings or ear-holes are aligned with your horse's ears and are roomy enough for his ear size. If the mask doesn't fit him well here--the openings are spaced too closely or too wide apart for his ear placement--he's more likely to get rubs from the edges of ear holes than from ear coverings.
Eyes: You've saved the most important check for last. A fly mask becomes an irritant instead of a protector if it fits too closely around the eye, where the mask mesh can cause painful abrasions to the eyeball. The fabric of the mask needs to stand out well away from the eye, giving total clearance to the eyelashes. When you've fastened the mask with the correct amount of snugness and checked for fit elsewhere, look carefully from the front, side and rear of your horse's head to be sure it clears the eye from every angle whether his head is lowered or raised.
If using a mask made of stiffer mesh with sewn-in darts shaping the fabric around the eye, make sure the widest, roomiest part of the mask is actually located over your horse's eye rather than higher up his face; some masks are simply too short between the ear area and the eye shaping. (In extreme cases where the mask fits much too close to your horse's eye, it's sometimes possible to see his eyelashes poking through the mesh--take the mask off immediately.)
Wash it! Wash it every day, if necessary. Unless your horse's fly mask is clean, it will shed flecks of dirt into his eyes or irritate his skin through contact with sweat- and mud-caked fleece edging. It's a quick, simple matter to dunk a mask into a bucket of water with a squirt of mild liquid soap and slosh it around (gently) until all the dirt has loosened and washed away.
Pay special attention to fleece edging, scrubbing it between your fingers if needed. When the edging is very soiled, use a mild Betadine solution (the color of weak tea) instead of soapy water, for disinfection. (Hook-and-loop closure straps can become matted with bits of trash or hair, but avoid hard scrubbing, which can damage their ability to grip. Instead use a stiff grooming brush or a dog's wire "slicker" brush on matted straps when they're dry.) When dirt is washed off, rinse the mask very thoroughly in several changes of fresh water until all traces of soap or Betadine are gone, then shake off excess water. The mask air-dries in a couple of hours (don't put in the clothes dryer).
Check for damage. Ripped or worn areas of the mask can let insects in and stray fibers from the mesh may irritate your horse, especially if the damaged part is near his eyes (as can happen if he snags it on something while having a good roll). It's also common for wear and tear to show up in seams that connect ear coverings. Masks are difficult to repair satisfactorily and it's a good policy to replace them when damaged. Recent improvements in design and materials have increased durability and it's not unusual for a fly mask to last a season or more.
Amy Anderson is barn manager for the Katonah, N.Y., home base of Andre Dignelli's "A" circuit powerhouse Heritage Farm, where she supervises the care of 65 to 70 horses as well as training and teaching.
This story originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.