We enjoyed a nice, long letter from a Rural Heritage subscriber in Kentucky. His free ranging correspondence ended with a question: I noticed you use fly netting on your horses. Do you think it is worth it?
The short answer is: “yes."
The long answer? It really depends on your location, the work you are doing and the horses.
We learned to farm with horses in southeastern Pennsylvania where biting flies were not a big problem. So it was a surprise when we moved to the north-central part of the state to see our horses dancing and kicking in harness trying to shake off the deer flies, horse flies and green-heads.
Old photos showed work horses in our area wearing leather fly netting. That seemed like a practical, common sense solution for fly protection, which had, unfortunately, gone out of fashion. When we saw an ad for new nylon fly nets, we immediately put in an order.
We are still using the fly nets we purchased more than 30 years ago. Since our source of fly netting in Illinois is no longer in business, we contacted advertisers in Rural Heritage magazine to see if harness shops carry this form of mechanical fly protection today. The following list shows that nylon fly nets for draft horses are not only widely available, but also reasonably priced.
Aaron Martin Harness LTD $68.29
Wallenstein, ON, Canada
Big Black Horse LLC $49.99
Hog Branch Harness $50.00
Midwest Leather $48.00
Peach Lane Harness Shop $39.00
Samson Harness Shop $58.00
Shipshewana Harness and Supplies $46.50
Yoder Nylon Works $35.50
Our fly nets came with three Velcro straps in the front, which go around the hames, and the top hame strap. At the back are a couple of loops for the crupper to go through. Since the lightweight brichen harness we recently purchased for our small Suffolks does not have a crupper, we tie the fly net to the ring at the top of the breeching.
We have found it easier to leave the fly netting on the harness for the duration of fly season rather than put it on every time we harness the horses. Yes, the long strings sometimes get tangled up in the harness. However, untangling the fly netting only adds a minute, at most, to the time spent harnessing.
We also keep fly bonnets on the horses’ bridles for the duration of fly season to shoo away face flies. Like the fly nets, movement of the horses causes the strings to swing back and forth, preventing flies from landing. We purchased the nylon fly bonnet shown in the first photo from Midwest Leather Co. The one made from baler twine was a gift from horse and mule farmer, Donn Hewes.
These physical forms of fly deterrence keep the horses comfortable when working at a brisk pace. However, for slower precision work, such as cultivating vegetables, we add a botanical measure of defense, applying herbal insect repellant to the parts of the horses not protected by the fly netting. If the horses will be standing for extended periods of time or fly pressure is really intense, we wipe down the whole horse with repellant before putting on the harness. The most effective product we have tried is Ect- Phyte from Agri-Dynamics (877-393-4484), which creates an “aromatic shield” around the animal. The addition of a little apple cider vinegar and liquid soap to a strong concentration of the essential oils (1:4 mix of Ecto-Phyte to water) provides complete relief from most flies for two to three hours.
Our current team of Suffolk mares has a condition called insect hypersensitivity. Insect bites cause a systemic reaction similar to hives in humans, resulting in hair loss and open wounds due to intense itching. The sensitivity increases with time so our goal is to protect the horses from fly bites as much as possible all season long.
In addition to fly nets and repellant, we use a neck sleeve on the mares. We noticed the Cashen Crusader neck sleeves in a supplements catalog for riding horses. Intended to go with full body fly sheets for horses on pasture, we have found they complement the fly nets well and are 100 percent effective at keeping flies away from this vulnerable, sensitive part of the working horse.
We use adjustable Velcro straps to attach the neck sleeve to the top of the bridle and the back pad of the harness. Consequently, the neck sleeve must be removed when unharnessing the team. Putting on the neck sleeve and applying repellant doubles harness time.