If a fly buzzes around your head you can shoo it away with your hand (or the magazine in your hand). Horses aren’t so lucky. During the warm months, flies love to congregate on their faces and there’s not much the poor beasts can do.

“Flies are drawn to the horse’s eyes because [they] are moist and warm,” said Emily Graham DVM, VSMT, at Westhills Equine Veterinary Services, in Stony Plain, Alberta. “Flies can irritate the eyes, causing tearing, which leads to more flies being attracted to the eyes.”

The pests may also trigger allergies and infections and transmit disease. Their incessantness can send even the gentlest of equines around the bend.

That’s where fly masks come in. These head coverings provide protection from flies and other insects thanks to a breathable mesh screen made of nylon, polyester or PVC. And yes, for the uninitiated, horses can see through the mesh just fine. (“My horse isn’t blindfolded,” is a frequent summertime refrain in many Canadian barns.) A few brands are even infused with insect repellent that lasts a season or so.

Eyes, Ears and Nose

Fly masks also serve many other practical purposes, including minimizing debris and dirt exposure, in treating eye, ear and facial injuries/conditions, and even reducing ultra-violet (UV) exposure, “similar to sunglasses,” said Dr. Graham. Depending on the manufacturer, masks can block out anywhere from 70 to more than 90 per cent of UV rays.

“We often use them for horses that have insect hypersensitivities or medical conditions such as corneal ulcers or equine recurrent uveitis, where they may be sensitive to the sunlight,” she noted.

Horses with light skin around the eye should wear a fly mask to reduce the risk of conditions like cancerous squamous cell carcinomas, which, said Dr. Graham, “have a higher risk of occurring in horses with pink pigment around the eye and with UV exposure.”

Permanent or detachable nose flaps, extending as far as or beyond the muzzle, shield sunburn-susceptible skin on the lower face and nose (some are even coated with extra UV protection), while at the same time defend from flies creeping around hoping for a snack of nostril discharge. Instead of a full-on flap to thwart flies, owners might opt instead for string fringes that dangle from the mask’s lower edge.

For horses bothered by midges, blackflies, mosquitoes and gnats, several fly masks come complete with ear covers. To accommodate the need for free ear movement, manufacturers use materials such as extra-soft meshes, cotton or polyester blends, football jersey knits or high-tech, lightweight, stretchy, moisture-wicking fabrics originally developed for human athletic wear. Such materials are also used at the crown, brow and jowl on many masks to enhance comfort and coverage.

Fly Mask Fit

A fly mask must fit well. In terms of overall size, masks can range from itty-bitty foal models to draft horse proportions. Some are even specifically made for long-eared mules and donkeys. A good starting point when deciding on fit is to refer to your horse’s halter size. You can also contact the manufacturer or do an online search for their measurement guidelines.

The mesh must be pliable, but rigid enough it doesn’t touch the eyes and eyelashes, otherwise the horse can suffer corneal scratches and ulcers. Darts strategically located above the eyes help hold the mask away from the eyes, as do rounded insets or rings. Be sure to check for eye clearance while the horse is both standing and grazing.

The edging or padding is an important part of the mask as it’s in constant contact with the sensitive skin on the face and head. Fleece and cotton are the usual binding materials and they can be combined with foam, sponge or elastic.
The mask should be snug at the edges to prevent insects from creeping in but not so tight that it causes rubs and painful pressure sores. Ideally, two stacked finger tips should easily slip between mask and face.

Fastenings generally consist of one or two bands of hook-and-loop closures at the horse’s jaw and/or throatlatch They vary in width and length depending on the mask and might include elastic tabs for adjustment.

Masks are tantalizing targets for equine grab-tag games, so, if your horse is turned out in a herd or he enjoys rubbing his head on items like fences, trees, even his own legs, opt for heavy-duty fastenings such as those with double-sided hook-and-loop closures, which are typically harder to undo or dislodge. A finger’s width or two between the fastening and the horse’s head will allow him to readily move his jaw while grazing and hopefully prevent it from coming off or a mischievous friend removing it.

Other extras that horse owners might want to consider: masks with a ring to attach a lead rope; a hole to pull the forelock through; and reflective sections. For fun, you can outfit your horse in quirky patterns like plaid, animal prints, googly eyes and comical faces.

And for the horse on the go, fly masks specifically made for riding are constructed of a sheerer, more flexible mesh than that used for general turn out fly masks. They either fit over the bridle or attach to it.

Fly masks are sold at various price points, from $10 or so for a basic model up to $40. You can usually catch good off-season deals.

But no matter what type, design or brand of mask you choose, you can be assured it will go a long way in helping your horse say buzz off to flies.