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Sweet Itch ...

An Owners Perspective to the Big Itch!

Many horse owners eagerly await the arrival of spring and the nicer weather that typically comes along with it, however if you are one of many owners that have a horse or pony that suffers from sweet itch you will know that with the arrival of spring also starts the dreaded sweet itch season!

As an owner of a welsh section D who is shown through the spring, summer and autumn sweet itch proves a real problem for us and our pony.

There has been many seasons when the sweet itch has taken hold and the rub cycle has proved impossible to break resulting in our pony rubbing out half his mane and making himself sore !

Over many years we have learnt to cope with the challenges it brings and have certainly found great ways to keep those midges and biting insects away and calm any itchy episodes before the sweet itch has taken hold which in turn has led to a much happier pony!

So what exactly is Sweet Itch?

Sweet itch is is mainly caused by the Cullicoides midge of which there are several species, although other biting insects can also be held responsible.

It is commonly seen during the spring all the way through to the autumn, cases have been reported as early as March when the conditions allow the early breeding of the midges to take place.

Horses are affected by sweet itch when midges or other biting insects bite the horse and then the horse has an hypersensitive allergic response to the midge saliva, this results in histamine being produced by the immune system (just like when people have hay fever)

Once this response occurs the horse will then have a very intense itch sensation which will lead them to try and relive the itch in any way possible.

To think about it in human terms it is like the insect bite that you want to itch but then once you itch it increases the horrible itch sensation ten fold... before you know it you have broken the skin and it so much worse !

So imagine how it would feel to have an itch that just can not be scratched or that won’t go away!! Not a great feeling to have...

Which Breeds are affected?

All species of horses can be affected although there is a noticeable reduced number of cases seen in thoroughbreds (less than 5%) than other breeds.

In Scotland reported cases are also significantly less than southern areas of the UK, this is thought to be because of the lower temperatures and the windier weather which prevents the midges from flying and breeding so prolifically.

Cases of sweet itch can be mild to very severe...

  • During mild cases the mane and the top of the horses tail may be affected causing the hair to fall out from constant rubbing, the skin in these areas may become sore and thickened by the horses constant rubbing.

  • In severe cases the ears, the head, mane, tail, the horse’s mid line on the belly and backs of knees may also be affected. Itching can be intense with the horse seeking any possible object to rub on in an attempt to relive the itch. The affected areas of skin will be sore, open and may also bleed leading to them being susceptible to infection.

Once the cycle of itching begins it is incredibly hard to stop which is why preventative measures are key to managing the problem...

Preventing the Problem

I have found the key to managing a sweet itch problem is early prevention!! The years that I haven’t been quite quick enough to dig out the sweet itch rug and begin to apply ointments or repellents are the years that it has been near impossible to gain control of the’ big itch’ with out veterinary assistance.

There are so many different ways to tackle the problem and as a horse owner it can become confusing which way to turn to first so here are some preventative measures that worked well for us!

Action Plan – Midges like to emerge when conditions are warm, humid and damp, they can make an appearance as early as March if conditions are right so before they pose a problem make sure your prepared with a good action plan.

Cover up – Buy a rug specifically designed to stop midges biting through the material, fit it well and keep it on your horse at all times when the horse is not being worked making sure that the horse is never exposed to the chance of being bitten.

Boett rugs are recommended by vets as they offer complete protection in the areas the rug covers and they can be worn 24/7 as they are designed not to rub.

There are other rugs on the market that also do a good job if your wage cant quite stretch to buying a Boett.

When riding or working your horse use a specific repellent that repels midges. Remember to wash of excess sweat after working as this too can attract midges and flies then cover the horse straight away. A good product to use for washing down is Smart Grooming's Lavender Splosh Wash as lavender is a natural midge repellent!

Fly Repellent – There are many products on the market but we have found those that contain a high level of DEET works best. Natural alternatives also can be highly effective Wildwash do a midge repellent that seems to work well for our cob! Reapply regularly especially if it has rained!

Ointments applied to the key areas (The mane, base of the tail, ears, in between legs) can also aid in discouraging midges from landing.

Fly Traps – Hang a fly trap near to your field, stable or both! The sticky fly traps are a cheap and cost effective way of keeping the fly numbers down therefore reducing the chance of your horse getting bitten, with every fly or midge stuck to the trap that's one less bothering your horse. The best bit about these type of traps is that they don't attract nectar feeding insects!

Sticky fly traps can be purchased from www.equine-innovations.co.uk

Timing Turnout – Midges like to come out under cloud cover or at dawn and dusk so try to avoid turnout during these times, they do not like strong sunlight or very dry conditions so bare this in mind when picking your turn out times.

If possible try to use a field away from any water courses especially if these areas are lined with or near to woodland as these are the perfect breeding locations for the female midges.

Areas close to the muck heap or near to any rotting vegetation should also be avoided.

An ideal location to turn out will be on a hill where you can benefit from breezier conditions as midges can not fly in winds stronger than 5 m.p.h.

Washing - Keep the mane and tail clean as a build up of grease can cause the horse to want to rub his tail or mane.

Environmental conditions – If possible eliminate places where your horse can rub, once the horses start to rub it can quickly become a habit which can lead to self mutilation.

When stabled try to prolong feeding times by feeding from a trickle net, Haygrazer bags are ideal for this, by spending more time foraging the horse will be distracted from rubbing. A stable toy can also aid in offering a distraction.


If despite your best efforts sweet itch has taken hold there are various ways in which you can help your equines.

Ointments - Benzyl Benzoate can sometimes be effective but really needs to be applies before the itching begins and not to open skin as it can be an irritant. Kill itch, Itch Salves also work well however like all chemicals gloves should be worn and you need to be careful if children are handling the ponies.

Steroids – In severe cases your vet may prescribe steroids (Prednisolone) which is very effective to relive the itch sensation however with this comes a risk with laminitis, pros and cons would need to be discussed with your veterinarian.

Supplemental Feeding – Some feed companies sell supplements that are said to help relive sweet itch, garlic is often advised to help repel flies however there is much debate over feeding garlic to horses that suffer from sweet itch as it is said to boost the immune system which is turn can heighten the allergic response to the midge saliva, though it is not yet proven we definitely found that by feeding garlic it seemed to exacerbate the problem with our pony.

Preventative Measures – Preventative measures mentioned above will also make up a good part of treatment for your horse.

To Summarise :

Sweet itch can affect all species of horses and ponies however every horse is different so methods that work well for one horse may not be so effective for yours so trial and error are a big part of gaining control of the problem,

By putting preventative measures in place early on in the season before the sweet itch takes hold is key to management. Remember potentially there may be other factors alongside the biting insects such as allergies adding to the problem.

Unfortunately if a horse develops sweet itch it will have this problem every year as at present there is no cure.

We are already implementing our plan of action so hopefully 'Ilar Ceio' won't have to resort to hiding in the hedge to keep away from the midges this year !



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