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Natural Fly Sprays--Worth it?

"Is it possible to provide effective insect control for my horses without a cloud of potentially toxic chemicals? If so, what ingredients should I look for in a natural fly spray?” 

2 years ago

Natural Fly Sprays--Worth it?

2 years ago

Though spring has theoretically arrived in most of the US by now, we just had our (hopefully) last snow of the year last week here in central New England.  Seems like it was snowing one day, and the next day our horses were covered in black flies. (sigh)  

Yes, it’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to fly control. (And mud control--but that’s a completely separate post)


I admit that In the past, I have been a non-compromising annihilator when it comes to insect control.  If the package is black, shiny, says “ultra” or 'extra' on it, count me in.  But despite the crazy chemicals I was applying, it didn’t really fully work.  I was still driven to try spot on treatments, masks, sheets, leg protection thingees--the gamut.  At least I knew I was doing my best to help with the fly scourge...

And then I had a daughter.  She was convinced that all fly sprays were poison, and not only did she refuse to spray her own pony for flies, she would leave the barn entirely when I did it for her so that I didn’t “kill her”.

Instead of providing my 10 year old with a lengthy discourse on how the EPA and FDA work together to protect people (the humans, to be clear) from things that are definitely unsafe (might be unsafe at high dosages is another matter altogether), I sat down and really thought about my insect control approach:

  • Most of the sprays I was using indicated that the spray’s effects lasted for 2 weeks.  I was spraying my horses with it 3 times a day!  (Because while some compounds may be slightly more sweat resistant than others, NOTHING stays on after a workout or a 95-degree August afternoon.  Nothing.  Maybe if we could craft an insect  repellent out of pine pitch?  Or poop stain?  Otherwise, nothing.)  
  • Also, the sprays I was using 3x/day clearly warned me:
"Do not use on horses intended for slaughter, nor on newborn or nursing foals. Do not apply directly to eyes and mouth of animal. Do not wet the skin, nor cover horses immediately after treatment. Do not apply to back of animal just before saddling."
Hmmmm..I apply once every 17 days (but not enough to wet the horse) and it renders a 1200# animal too toxic to eat? Yikes. 
"May be harmful if absorbed through the skin. Avoid contact with skin, eyes or clothing. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. Wear rubber gloves while handling this product."  
Um, whoops.  I can’t remember the last time I pulled out my rubber gloves for fly spray.  Or washed my hands between fly spray application and riding/feeding treats/eating a sandwich (#hygienegoals).  

So, possibly, it was time to re-evaluate my program.  NOT because I was any more tolerant of all of the biting insects...but because I wondered if I could get the same ‘ok’ results with less potential risk to horse/kid/self/sandwich. 

My question:

"Is it possible to provide effective insect control for my horses without a cloud of potentially toxic chemicals? If so, what ingredients should I look for in a natural fly spray?” 

Here’s what I found:


Essential Oils for Insect Control

Luckily, effective botanical solutions for insect control abound.  In fact, pyrethrins, the main ingredient in many commercial fly sprays, are a compound found in marigolds.  Here are some other compounds shown to repel and/or kill biting insects:

Vetiver & Cinnamon (alone or blended):

Neem, Lemongrass, Eucalyptus, Mint, Catnip, Geranium, Rose, Clove:

And many have even been shown to kill and/or repel ticks:

These oils are not regulated by the EPA, as the agency does not consider the chemicals they contain to provide any significant safety risks to humans.  Reassuring, right?  But because I’m concerned about more than just people, I also researched which oils are safe for which species.  Many individuals and companies have compiled lists, but I have not found a sanctioned list from the AVMA.

Additional Natural Fly Spray Ingredients 

Whether you are evaluating natural options currently on the market OR making your own, you’ll want to see more than essential botanical oils on the ingredient list.  Experts agree that even the safest essential botanical oils should not be applied to your horse undiluted.  But what are the best dilutants or carriers?

Sweet almond oil is a popular choice for diluting plant oils, but in terms of insect control, it doesn’t seem to ‘do’ much.  How about coconut oil?  “More effective than DEET...against a broad array of blood-sucking arthropods including biting flies, ticks, bed bugs and mosquitoes

The thing about vinegar:  I’ve seen a bunch of DIY recipes on the internet that use vinegar as a base--especially ACV (apple cider vinegar).  What does the research say about that?  Not much, it would seem.  I found lots of anecdotal recommendations for white vinegar and ACV for repelling insects (with ACV being preferred) and then found JUST AS MANY recommendations for ACV use in fruit fly traps because the flies are attracted to the smell of the vinegar.  Head scratcher here, for sure...given the stink and the potential to attract and not repel, I’ll stay away from this one for now.


If you’d like to move your fly spray regimen in a less toxic direction, research would indicate you’ve got a lot to be positive about.  Be sure that the ingredients in the formulation(s) you choose (or make) are both effective and safe.  And if you’re experimenting, TAKE NOTES!  Witnesses are terribly unreliable, and often the only way to really know how well something is working for your horse is to write down what you’re seeing from day to day, formulation to formulation.  And, if you feel moved--share your best recipes here along with your geographic region and any other observations--we’d love to know what’s really working out there!


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