Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Coping With Biting Insects

Ravenseyrie is a rugged wilderness, filled with heart-swelling beauty and a sense of magic. It is also a place of extremes. We experience harsh winters, idyllic early springs, dry, hot summers and heavenly autumns.

Late spring, however (especially if it has been a rainy season) can be one of the most difficult times of the year--this due to the ravenous, gnatty black flies and mosquitos. At times there are thick curtains of them, hovering in wait for warm-blooded creatures to pass nearby.

You can imagine that horses living in a semi-wild setting such as ours are a favorite host for the feeding insects (as are we humans). But whereas we can dash in to our well screened dwellings, the horses cannot. No devotee of the horse feels good watching their equine friends be ardently pursued by biting insects.

How can we make things better for them?

In the days when I competed in dressage and kept my horse at a fully equipped show barn, there were many ways one could intervene to help the horse find relief from flies and mosquitos. First the horses were kept locked in their stalls in the shade of the stable, often with electric fans whirring. Highly toxic insecticides were sprayed in the stable and around the grounds as well as on the horses themselves. Then there were a variety of masks, hoods, blankets and leg wraps that the horses were outfitted in to prevent them from being bitten. In a setting such as this, these conventional means were quite necessary, since all the horse's natural defenses had been effectively denied him. By disallowing the horse the freedom to move at will through a varied, natural setting and keeping him separated in an empty paddock or a box stall, clipping the hair out of his ears, shaving off his whiskers, trimming away his fetlock feathers and wrapping his tail to keep it from being damaged during show season we have made the horse utterly disabled.

Such a situation arises from purely human-centered concepts. While we feel better seeing our horses quietly dozing in the shade of a box stall, adorned with the best high-tech insect repelling clothing and chemicals it is not, overall, in the best interest of the horse's physical and mental health to while away the summer days in this manner.

In my not too distant past, after having turned away from the unnatural environment of the show horse world, Kevin and I were able to improve upon the way we kept our horses so that there was not a need for nearly as much insect fighting paraphernalia. We had a small (but insufficient) pasture with a few trees connected to the always open stable via a lane-way. Our horses were turned out 24/7 and had the freedom to choose where they wanted to be depending upon the conditions of the day. Virtually the only time they preferred to be in the stable was when the days were hot and buggy. It was dark in the barn, and usually cooler (but not always) and there were definitely very few biting insects that ventured into this space. On these particularly buggy days, the horses would spend an enormous amount of time in a seemingly drugged state waiting for conditions to change. There was relief, but also a bit of boredom and limited movement. On the days when it was extremely hot and humid with no air moving, the barn was a retreat from the sun and the biting insects, but it was also a stifling, stagnant place and the horses would be listless and sweat-coated even when standing still. We would set the fans out for them on these especially dreadful days, and it helped.

Here at Ravenseyrie, we are fortunate to provide the horses with a great variety of ways that they, themselves, can use to find relief from the weather and the biting insects. Make no mistake, however, there are times when the insects are so relentlessly irritating the horses are often seen running across their lush grassy prairie seeking an escape. Because I am keen to understand what our horses experience, I often join the herd and follow them throughout their day, observing their routines and preferences.

During the times when the horses (and mules) are being annoyed by biting insects (just as I am) they have the following remedies which I would like to share with you pictorially.

Thanks to our ample forested areas, the horses and mules find tremendous relief from the biting insects by following each other, one behind the other, through countless trails they have made through the woods.

In this photo, their well-worn trail is just at the edge of one of the prairie grasslands.

The trail takes them underneath the lower branches of the Cedars and effectively brushes off the clinging flies and mosquitoes.

Another means of finding relief from the flies is to go to a special grove of Cedar trees at the edge of the bluff. When the breeze is coming up off the lake below this spot is better than any shady stable with or without electric fans whirring.

This special place at the bluff's edge is one of the preferred afternoon nap-time locations. The horses and mules will arrange themeslves in small groups and assist each other with idly brushing off flies with each others tails and
often they will....

...engage in mutual grooming.

Another pastime that our horses and mules pursue to help them endure those days when the biting insects are causing discomfort is rubbing on trees.
It continues to amaze me how effectively the trees, branches, small shrubs and rocks serve to satisfy itches in the most inaccessible places.

I don't have a photo of it (yet), but it is most comical to watch a horse straddle a bush that is just the right height to scratch its belly. The weaving and swaying must give them tremendous relief and pleasure. It surely gives me enjoyment watching them itch themselves this way.

When its not too hot, and there is a terrific breeze off the lake, it seems the horses cannot get enough of hanging out down at the beach.

And look how well little Animado blends in with the rocks while he takes his nap!
Can you see where little Fada is hiding? Hint: she is standing up.

Here we have the dozing domestics...

...and here we have the some of the dozing primitives.

At Ravenseryie there is much, much more pasture than the herd's needs require. In fact, especially in springtime, if it weren't for the ardent pursuit of the biting insects, I'm certain we would have issues with grass intolerance, laminitis, obesity and colic. If not for the insects interrupting the gorging of grass, we would have to intervene to keep the herd from getting sick. We would have to take them off the grass, put them in an empty paddock, let them out to pasture for only brief hours each day, outfit them with fly protection and hire a farrier to tend to their hooves due to their now restricted environment.

Which lifestyle do you think the horses and mules prefer?


Miek said...

Lynne, I was wondering, do they ever go into the water? Would this help to ease the itches? Or maybe, after they go into the water and roled in the sand they would have a mud coat to protect them?

lol Annemiek

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynne,

Shadow makes ample use of scratch trees and bushes. He loves his belly scratched, and will stand over a coyote brush bush and rock back and forth to get his fix. He also has a favorite tree to rub his mane and neck on.

We have the driest spring in 100 years here in California (yesterday it was 5% relative humidity), and next to no insects. Nature is in End-of-August state. Shadow likes it (being a desert animal) but I am worried about fires. We are having the second wild fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The coastal fog has gone south. Pretty scary...

(already forgot my password, so i'm passing as anonymous)

Lynne Gerard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynne Gerard said...

If you ever get a photo of Shadow using a coyote brush bush to itch his belly, I'd sure enjoy seeing it.

In the very early spring I can recall you were worried about flooding...and now things are too dry there.

Those wildfires are for sure a frightening thing. I hope your area is not threatened.

Thanks for sharing how Shadow gives himself a good scratching.