If you’re new to the world of equestrian and horse riding, then you may have heard people talking about fly masks, or seen them mentioned online, but do you know what they’re actually for?
This article is going to tell you everything you need to know about fly masks, so you’re better informed and can decide whether you need to purchase one for your horse.
What does a fly mask do?
Well the clue is in the name really! A fly mask helps protect your horse’s face, eyes and ears from flies and other insects.
There are all sorts of bugs that can irritate your horse, and as the skin around the face is often more sensitive, it can cause real issues.
Dr. Timothy Gibb, Clinical Professor of Entomology at Purdue Agricultural University in Indiana, explained: “Fly masks are used to relieve the stress that a horse deals with when continually fighting flies – primarily the face fly. Face flies are persistent and annoying while they feed around the eyes and nose of horses. They are capable of transmitting eye-worm to horses but this is not common. The mask simply acts as a physical barrier between the horse and the flies.”
Some horses are also particularly sensitive to sunlight, and fly masks can help protect their skin and eyes. This is obviously very handy in warm weather, but can also guard against ‘snow glare’ where sunlight bounces off snow and onto the horse. Some fly masks are made with UV protection for extra defense.
Fly masks do look a little odd, but as long as they’re fitted correctly shouldn’t cause the horse any problems. And if you’re wondering can horses see through fly masks – of course they can! They’re made of fine mesh, so the horse’s vision is barely affected at all.
Dr. Gibb told us this interesting little account, which some of you may recognise: “I have heard of some people stopping and confronting horse owners to accuse them of cruelly putting ‘blindfolds’ on horses as a way to train them. It turns out that the blindfolds are actually fly masks!”
Why use a fly mask?
By far and away the most important reason to use a fly mask is to ensure your horse is as comfortable and free from irritation as possible. As humans, we can swat insects away from our face with our hands, but obviously horses don’t have that luxury, and can therefore become very distressed. In herds, horses usually use their tail to swish away flies from each other’s faces.
Insects can also cause infection and allergies, so a fly mask can really help you manage your horse’s health. For example, face flies are attracted to the moisture around the eyes, which can lead to infections, while gnats can get into the ears or mouth and their bites can cause a lot of discomfort. Fly masks can also benefit horses suffering from aural plaques.
You can use fly repellent to keep flies away from the rest of the horse’s body, but it’s not as easy to spray it around the mouth and eyes.
If you’re training, whether for dressage, eventing or any other discipline, then flies can distract your horse, making it more likely to ignore your instructions. Similarly, if you clip your horse’s ears for showing, a fly mask with ears can help keep gnats out.
Martina, rider and founder of equestrianbootsandbridles.com, has given us her advice on using fly masks:
“Fly masks are vitally important for horses that are kept for periods of time in the stalls or pens, especially in hotter climates or hotter seasons, when the flies are out the most. And I mean beyond the fact that they’re an annoyance, they have rare disease-carrying capacity and cause occasional painful bites and sores.
“You may have noticed that flies tend to flock your horse’s face and this is because they’re attracted by the fluids in your horse’s nose and eyes. Once there, flies will automatically start eating the second they land because that’s a reflex for them and when flies eat, they also defecate.
“One fly here and there won’t cause an issue but imagine the waste produced by dozens and dozens of flies and multiply that by the amount of time your horse is standing exposed and unprotected. It won’t be long before your horse’s eyes get irritated and then infected, which may end up costing you much more in vet bills than the mask – not to mention your horse won’t be very happy.”
How to size a fly mask
Making sure your horse’s fly mask fits properly is essential, or it could end up being even more of an irritant.
The chart below provides a guide to sizing a fly mask, although you should always double check your horse’s measurements.
A = Between ears to middle of face
B = Bottom side of ear to middle of face
C = Between ears to between nostrils down center of face
D = Around middle of face to middle of jowl
E = Around the neck 2” behind ears at mid jowl
F = Side to side across brow 2” behind & below ears
How to fit a fly mask
There are a few considerations to make when sizing and fitting a fly mask to ensure it fits your horse properly.
The edging of the mask doesn’t need to be clamped tight against the skin all the way round, or it will cause rubbing and chafing. However, you do need to make sure there aren’t any large gaps. Most masks, such as this Amigo fly mask, have fleece edging to make it softer and more secure.
You should also make sure it’s not too tight around the throatlatch, and that there’s enough room between the mesh and the horse’s skin. If the mask is too close to the eyes, then it can scratch them and cause corneal ulcers, so ensure it well clears the eyelashes.
A horse’s ears are always moving, so if you have a fly mask with ears, then ensure there’s room for them to move their ears freely or they may become irritated and distressed.
We spoke to Emmeline Hannelly, Welfare Education Officer at the British Horse Society, and she recommended that you “introduce the fly mask to the horse gradually in a controlled environment to ensure the horse is happy and content.”
Fly mask with or without ears
Whether you choose a fly mask with or without ears comes down to how much your horse is affected by insects in its ears – some are particularly irritated by it, others not so much.
As we mentioned earlier, your horse may find gnats or other flies more of a problem if their ears are clipped for showing, in which case a fly mask may well be worth it. If you do choose a fly mask with ears, leave enough room for your horse to move their ears freely.
It’s also not uncommon for riders to use fly hoods that only protect the ears and top of the head. These are popular in shows as they can actually look quite smart.
How to clean a fly mask
You should clean your horse’s fly mask regularly, even daily if they’ve been very active. Dirt, mud and other debris will get kicked up and caught in the mask, which could lead to irritation. General grime will also likely build up on the inside of the mask from breathing and sweating, and if you don’t clean this then it could cause infections.
You should use some kind of antibacterial agent such as a mild Betadine solution to kill off bacteria, and then rinse thoroughly in clean water before air drying.
It’s always wise to have at least one spare fly mask, so you can put on a clean one while the other is being washed.
See our full range of fly masks for horses and keep your horse’s eyes and ears fly free!