The days are lengthening and spring is almost here, so now is the perfect time to start thinking about summer skin allergies, as early action is by far the best way to minimise their impact on your horse. 

In the UK it is thought that over 50,000 horses suffer from summer skin-related problems and conditions. There are a number of causes of these conditions, such as feed hypersensitivity, nettle stings, and allergy to the saliva from insect bites (Sweet Itch).

Depending on the cause of the allergy, it is always best to remove your horse from the source of the allergy where possible; however keeping your horse away from all flies is extremely difficult.


Summer seasonal recurrent dermatitis, commonly called Sweet Itch, is caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva of the biting gnat known as the Culicoides midge. These bothersome midges are active from April through October. They live and breed in ponds, marshes, and areas where water is standing and stagnant. Midges can travel up to half a mile to find a good meal. They tend to be most active during the hours around dawn and dusk. The severity of the horse’s reaction increases from year to year, as your horse becomes increasingly more sensitive to the insect’s saliva. Dorsal feeders are the most common midge; they feed on the skin around the ears, poll, mane, withers, rump, and tail head. Less common are the ventral feeders, who cause problems on the face, chest, and belly. All breeds and types of horses, ponies and donkeys are susceptible to Sweet Itch, although some breeds are more susceptible than others.


The symptoms of Sweet Itch are hard to miss. Horses will constantly rub affected areas as a response to the intense itching. In the early phase the skin will become red and inflamed, and there will be hair loss. Crusting and weeping sores may be present. The itching can become so severe that the horse scratches itself on anything in reach. This can lead to a marked change in the horse’s temperament as the horse remains constantly agitated from the continuous itching.

In the chronic (later) phase the skin will thicken and become wrinkled. Sparse, coarse hair may be present. Once winter comes, the area usually completely heals up. It is therefore essential to be aware of the potential risk of buying a horse during the winter months when there are little or no signs of sweet itch. If a horse has a mane and tail that look suspicious, it is advisable to inspect it closely for signs of hair loss which may suggest sweet itch in the summer.


A combined approach is needed in order to help prevent the itch, scratch, rub cycle:

  1. Decrease Exposure to Insects:

Using a fly rug with hood and mask to cover all of the areas of the horse susceptible to bites is the most effective fly protection when out at grass.

Stabling at dawn and dusk as midges generally feed most at these times. In the summer months it is safest to stable your horse from 4pm to 8am.

Putting a fan in the stable will create air movement which midges don’t like.

Fitting a fly screen onto stable windows and the door can protect horses against midges entering the stable.

Moving the horse away from standing water and boggy land as midges like to breed on wet land and near water sources.

Salves and creams applied to the problem areas may help as midges aren’t able to bite through them. Nettex Summer Freedom (Itch Stop) is ideal for this as it also has soothing properties to help break the itch, scratch, rub cycle.

  1. Insect Repellents:

DEET based repellents are highly effective. Choose a long lasting insect repellent that contains DEET.

Nettex Fly Repellent Standard is a high strength DEET formulation.

Nettex Fly Repellent Advanced is a DEET based formulation with added moisturisers and conditioners for controlled release.

Nettex Fly Repellent Wipes and Nettex Summer Fly Cream are also both DEET based and are ideal for horses that dislike sprays and for application to sensitive areas such as the face.

  1. Stopping the Itching:

Your vet can prescribe medication to reduce the itchiness, however these treatments may have side effects and so need to be carefully discussed with your vet.

Soothing salves or creams may help to relieve the itching. Nettex Summer Freedom (Itch Stop), is ideal for this, as it has soothing properties to help break the itch, scratch, rub cycle. It may also repel against new bites and help promote hair regrowth.  Preventative strategies are important so it is best to start using Nettex Summer Freedom (Itch Stop), early in the year before the season starts with a once weekly application.

  1. Maintaining healthy skin:

Recent research in Canada has shown that supplementing the diets of sweet itch horses with Omega-3 Fatty Acids reduced horses’ skin reactions to midge bites. Nettex Linseed Oil is ideal as it contains high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. Also feeding a probiotic has been shown to boost the immune system, so feeding Nettex Gut Balancer may also be of benefit.

To give the best results these measures should ideally be started before the midge season.  A horse can do a lot of damage in a short period of time when they start rubbing manes and tails. If your horse is showing severe symptoms or you are unable to get his Sweet Itch under control you must seek advice from your vet.

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