Severe itching from fly? allergies in IR horse


I am reaching out to see if anyone has been successful in relieving severe itching from (possibly fly) allergies.  My horse is new to me (owned less than 3 mos), is an 8 yo IR Friesian cross who is itchy over his entire body.  He was recently evaluated by a vet who suspects fly allergies and we are using 20 Zyrtec twice daily and medicated shampoo baths 3x/week.  We suspect he recently had too much sugar in his hay and for the last 5 days I have been soaking all hay while awaiting testing on some local teff hay.  An IR nutrition plan was created for him and has been implemented for the last 6 weeks.  I have ordered (but not yet received) J-herb, chondroitin and spirulina. 

His scratching has recently escalated and in a matter of 5 days, he has rubbed a 2" x 6"  area of hair off his tail and is removing a greater amount of hair from his left buttock and near his anus where the skin is breaking down.  The vet is offering a different antihistamine and am informed not to administer steroids.  She wants to test to to verify IR before carefully using steroids. We are working on controlling the fly population at our barn by putting all the horses on Solitude 1-2-3; however, there are sheep next door.  All of this takes time.  For the heck of it, I put a neoprene tail wrap on him last night, which he got off.  I think it helped; however, I am aware he cannot live in it 24 hr/day and we have been having triple digit heat for several weeks.

Any soothing ideas for this guy?  With gratitude, Jeannette
Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021

Sherry Morse

Hi Jeannette,



He was in a fly sheet; however, we have been having triple digit days and he was sweating a lot without one, so I took it off.  I'm considering buying the new style that is very light weight and have him sweat in it during the day and take it off at night.   Put him back in one today with the tail wrap.

Yes, cleaned his sheath weeks ago and got a big bean out...was hoping that was it.

Have not wormed him (was told he was current) and was told that pin worm was not in our area???  But, will get some Ivermectin today and administer.

I have been using the Equiderma skin lotion on his tail and buttocks, to no avail.  Will try the Vit E you suggest.  I was wondering if I should try Calamine.  I've only ever used 1% hydrocortisone on myself; but, was wondering what other local applications might help.  His care right now is very labor intensive (I go to the barn 4 times a day to soak hay), so I could possibly apply something else locally, if you know of something.

Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021


Hello Jeannette,
First I will offer a couple of suggestions about your horse's itching. From personal experience of caring for horses across most of this country (including Hawaii and Guam) I feel that most of the time tail rubbing is because the horse is being bitten by gnats (can include mosquitos) in the groin area and often right down their midline to their chest under their jaw. It may just be the groin area or all of the above. Gnat bites create a horrible itch, they make ME itch. Because a horse can't reach his/her groin they try to scratch that itch by tail rubbing.
IMO Lemon Eucalyptus oil is the best gnat repellent. Do not buy a mixture of Lemon Oil  and Eucalyptus Oil, it isn't the same. You can find Lemon Eucalyptus oil in small spray bottle at sporting goods stores, with the Deet and other insect repellants. It comes in very small amounts so I extend it with Listerine BROWN mouth wash. The mouth wash gives you volume and the oil mixes into it well. Just use an empty clean spray bottle for the mix. Spray from groin to chin at least 2xday. If you find any raw places I HIGHLY recommend spraying thos spots with Alushield. It is a spray on bandage which will protect the granulated sore and completely repels the knats from any spot you spray it on and the raw spots can then heal over. Yes the stuff is the color of aluminum! But it will wash off or wear off. You horse will look a bit hinky but will find relief.

Is you horse being fed Flax seed? Not only does it seem to help with itching it provides omega 3's that horses need. You can feed it whole without grinding but it is suggested that you feed 6-8 oz of whole seed.

All new members receive the following "New Member" packet of information. We request that you follow the instructions below for joining the case history sub-group and create/upload you horse's case history. We do require a case history for each horse so we have the details about health, diet, illnesses and test in the one document.

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Welcome to the group! 

The ECIR Group provides the best, most up to date information on Cushing's (PPID) and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)/Insulin Resistance (IR). Please explore our website where you'll find tons of great information that will help you to quickly understand the main things you need to know to start helping your horse. Also open any of the links below (in blue font) for more information/instructions that will save you time.

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Below is a general summary of our DDT/E philosophy which is short for Diagnosis, Diet, Trim and Exercise.


DIAGNOSIS: There are two conditions dealt with here: Cushings (PPID) and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)/Insulin Resistance (IR). These are two separate issues that share some overlapping symptoms. An equine may be either PPID or EMS/IR, neither or both. While increasing age is the greatest risk factor for developing PPID, IR can appear at any age and may have a genetic component. Blood work is used for diagnosis as well as monitoring the level of control of each.

PPID is diagnosed using the Endogenous ACTH test, while EMS/IR is diagnosed by testing non-fasting insulin and glucose.

The fat-derived hormone leptin is also usually abnormally elevated in insulin resistance but because there are many other things which can lower or increase leptin ECIR is not recommending routine testing for this hormone. Leptin is the hormone that says "stop eating".

In Europe, adiponectin is tested instead of leptin. Adiponectin helps regulate glucose and fat burning, and maintain insulin sensitivity. Low levels are associated with EMS. It has come to be preferred over leptin because it is not influenced by things like weight or exercise, and also because it was the only factor other than insulin levels that predicted laminitis risk

*Before calling your vet to draw blood for tests, we suggest saving time and wasted money by reading these details and then sharing them with your vet so that everyone is on the same page regarding correct testing and protocols.

*Please remember to request copies of the results of all the tests done rather than just relying on verbal information. Your vet should be able to email these to you. If you have previous test results, please include those as well. All should go in your CH, but if you are having any trouble with the CH, just post in the messages for now. 

Treatment: EMS is a metabolic type - not a disease - that is managed with a low sugar+starch diet and exercise (as able). The super-efficient easy keeper type breeds such as minis, ponies, Morgans, Arabs, Rockies are some of the classic examples. PPID is a progressive disease that is treated with the medication pergolide. Some, but not all, individuals may experience a temporary loss of appetite, lethargy and/or depression when first starting the medication. To avoid this "pergolide veil" (scroll down for side effects), we recommend weaning onto the drug slowly and the use of the product APF. The best long term results are seen when the ACTH is maintained in the middle of the normal range at all times, including during the annual seasonal rise. To accomplish this, the amount of medication may need to increase over time. Neither condition is ever "cured", only properly controlled for the remainder of the equine's life. If your partner is both PPID and IR then both medication and diet management will be needed. 

DIET: Almost all commercial feeds are not suitable - no matter what it says on the bag. Please see the International Safe Feeds List for the safest suggestions.

No hay is "safe" until proven so by chemical analysis. The diet that works for IR is:

  • low carb (less than 10% sugar+starch)
  • low fat (4% or less) 
  • mineral balanced  

We use grass hay, tested to be under 10% ESC + starch, with minerals added to balance the excesses and deficiencies in the hay, plus salt, and to replace the fragile ingredients that are lost when grass is cured into hay, we add ground flax seed and Vitamin E. This diet is crucial for an EMS/IR horse, but also supports the delicate immune system of a PPID horse. 

*Until you can get your hay tested and balanced we recommend that you soak your hay and use the emergency diet (scroll down for it).  The emergency diet is not intended for long term use, but addresses some of the most common major deficiencies. Testing your hay and getting the minerals balanced to its excesses and deficiencies is the best way to feed any equine (look under the Hay Balancing file if you want professional help balancing). If you absolutely cannot test your hay and balance the minerals to it, or would like to use a "stop gap" product until you get your hay balanced, here's a list of "acceptable" ration balancers

There is a lot of helpful information in the start here folder so it is important you read all the documents found there. The emergency diet involves soaking your untested hay for an hour in cold water or 30 minutes in hot water. This removes up to 30% of the sugar content, but no starch. Starch is worse than sugar since it converts 100% to glucose while sugar only converts 50%, so starch causes a bigger insulin spike. Make sure you dump the soaking water where the equine(s) can't get to it. 

What you don't feed on the EMS/IR diet is every bit as, if not more important than, what you do feed! No grass. No grain. No sugary treats, including apples and carrots. No brown/red salt blocks which contain iron (and sometimes molasses) which interferes with mineral balancing, so white salt blocks only. 

No products containing molasses. No bagged feeds with a combined sugar and starch of over 10% or starch over about 4%, or fat over about 4%. Unfortunately, even bagged feeds that say they are designed for IR and/or PPID equines are usually too high in sugar, starch and/or fat. It’s really important to know the actual analysis and not be fooled by a name that says it is suitable for EMS/IR individuals.

We do not recommend feeding alfalfa hay to EMS/IR equines as it makes many of them laminitic. Although it tends to be low in sugar, many times the starch is higher and does not soak out. Additionally, protein and calcium are quite high, which can contribute to sore footedness and make mineral balancing very difficult.

TRIM: A proper trim is toes backed and heels lowered so that the hoof capsule closely hugs and supports the internal structures of the foot. Though important for all equines, it's essential for IR and/or PPID equines to have a proper trim in place since they are at increased risk for laminitis. After any potential triggers are removed from the diet, and in PPID individuals, the ACTH is under control, the realigning trim is often the missing link in getting a laminitic equine comfortable. In general, laminitic hooves require more frequent trim adjustments to maintain the proper alignment so we recommend the use of padded boots rather than fixed appliances (i.e. shoes, clogs), at least during the initial phases of treatment.

Sometimes subclinical laminitis can be misdiagnosed as arthritis, navicular, or a host of other problems as the animal attempts to compensate for sore feet. 

You are encouraged to make an album and post hoof pictures and any radiographs you might have so we can to look to see if you have an optimal trim in place. Read this section of the wiki for how to get a hoof evaluation, what photos are needed, and how to get the best hoof shots and radiographs.

EXERCISEThe best IR buster there is, but only if the equine is comfortable and non-laminitic. An individual that has had laminitis needs 6-9 months of correct realigning trims before any serious exercise can begin. Once the equine is moving around comfortably at liberty, hand walking can begin in long straight lines with no tight turns. Do not force a laminitic individual to move, or allow its other companions to do so. It will begin to move once the pain begins to subside. Resting its fragile feet is needed for healing to take place so if the animal wants to lay down, do not encourage it to get up. Place feed and water where it can be reached easily without having to move any more than necessary. Be extremely careful about movement while using NSAIDs (bute, banamine, previcox, etc.) as it masks pain and encourages more movement than these fragile feet are actually able to withstand. Additionally, NSAIDs (and icing) do not work on metabolic laminitis and long term NSAID use interferes with healing. Therefore, we recommend tapering off NSAIDs after the first week or so of use. If after a week's time your equine's comfort level has not increased, then the cause of the laminitis has not been removed and keeping up the NSAIDs isn't the answer - you need to address the underlying cause.


There is lots more information in our files and archived messages and also on our website. It is a lot of information, so take some time to go over it and feel free to ask any questions. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don't worry, you will catch on, and we are always here to help you! Once you have your case history uploaded, we can help you help your equine partner even better.

For members outside North America, there are country specific folders in the files and many international lists in the wiki to help you find local resources.

If you have any technical difficulties, please let us know so we can help you. 

Bonnie Snodgrass 07-2016

ECIR Group Primary Response 

White Cloud, Michigan, USA

Mouse Case History, Photo Album Deceased


It sounds like he would benefit from a fly sheet, get the kind that is made for horses with sweet itch like the shires highlander sweet itch rug.  

Maxine McArthur

On Tue, Aug 17, 2021 at 04:14 AM, Bonnie Snodgrass wrote:
It comes in very small amounts so I extend it with Listerine BROWN mouth wash. The mouth wash gives you volume and the oil mixes into it well.
Bonnie, is this the 'Original' Listerine or the one with zero alcohol called 'Gum Care'? Both of these are in brown bottles here.
Maxine and Indy (PPID) and Dangles (PPID)

Canberra, Australia 2010
ECIR Primary Response


Brenda Gasch Mittelstadt


I have added 2 tsp of spirulina to Stormys AM diet and that stopped his neck rubbing almost entirely.

However his insect sensitivity in groin area continues. I thought maybe summer sores and treated with ivermectin paste and that helped some. But mostly I have to use this product from the vet (link below). A small layer of the unguent. Then I make sure I have other fly sprays soothed over the area. He is so sensitive now he develops leaky sores pretty quickly if I don't tend to the bites:

I also have not yet started pergolide as he is low level ACTH, but I wonder if that helps at all with this issue when it improves overall health from the dysfunction of the hormone system. 


September 2020, Dodgeville WI USA

Case History:  .
Stormy Photo Album


Lorna Cane

On Tue, Aug 17, 2021 at 09:36 AM, Brenda Gasch Mittelstadt wrote:
I also have not yet started pergolide as he is low level ACTH,
Hi Brenda,

Has he been tested since March? His ACTH then was 23, but could it have crept up since then?

Can you check the lab ranges column for ACTH in your CH? Typos maybe?

Lorna  in Eastern  Ontario
Check out FAQ :


I see a lot of correlation with EMS horses and sweet itch/fly/gnat allergy, including one of my family's. Diet control does seem to help. My family mare has been on Benadryl to help control the reaction for many years... certain sprays work better for repellent, and Skin So Soft seems to also be a good one (but haven't tried Lemon Eucalyptus!). Unfortunately the most successful product we found is no longer brought into the states from the UK.

SWAT along the midline can definitely be helpful. For a simple barrier and skin soothing, Desitin works well.

Anti-inflammatory elements to the diet, like flax, also seem to help somewhat. There's no real 1-off approach that I've found... a lot of chipping away at things.

Prophecy - 33 yo Morgan - PPID
Missy - 8yo Morgan - EMS
San Diego, CA

valerie puryear

I have a rescue gelding who came from Florida last year with terrible sweet itch. And we have GNATS in Georgia! He rubbed his neck and butt raw. He was on antihistamines, steroid injections (horse is not PPID), and remained miserable all summer. The only thing that gave him real relief was Coat Defense powder applied to the areas twice a day-skin healed and itching greatly reduced.

Valerie and Matera
Aug 2018
Athens, GA, USA
Case History 
Photo Album


Hi, Jeannette. Welcome from Sonoma County. I suggest you join our sister group, EC Horsekeeping, 
and review the file What to do about Culicoid Sensitivity.  Lots of good information there. Essentially you want to treat your horse for both neck threadworm (serial doses of ivermectin) and midges. You'll find information about how to help the itch and to mix a barrier cream. Just recognize that once an allergy is rampaging, your horse's skin can be sensitive to essential oils along with everything else. Start slowly with one topical at a time and watch for a reaction like hives or more swelling where you used the topical.

My itchy horse gets almost immediate itch relief (tho it's temporary) from, of all things, Noxema (thank you, Dr Kellon). After she calms down, I put on a barrier cream. For now, I'm using Swat because her biggest gripe is flies feeding around her belly button. Your problem sounds more extensive, so I suggest you approach this by doing a lot of different things (I'm not talking about different topicals - I mean address the dietary components, deworming and supplements -) at once to try to stop this terrible itch. In my lifelong experience with allergies, there is no one single fix, but several things help about 30%. Stack them up, and you can get a lot of relief.

Midges are a much bigger problem here in the damp spring. It's quite dry where I live, so midges aren't bothering my mares right now. But depending where your horse is located, midges can cause misery right through the summer.
Cass, Sonoma Co., CA 2012
ECIR Group Moderator
Cayuse and Diamond Case History Folder                
Cayuse Photos                Diamond Photos

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

This paper is from before EMS really became mainstream but shows a higher tendency toward allergy in horses with chronic laminitis .

Noxzema also makes a good barrier cream and also contains Camphor, Menthol and Eucalyptus.
Eleanor in PA 
EC Owner 2001


Hi Cass

Thank you so much for sharing.  I admit, I've been at the barn so much soaking and fluffing hay, turning him in and out and trying to make him comfortable that I haven't had time to read all these wonderful responses.  So, I'm reading and responding to them one by one.  Will check out your group.  This horse came from Petaluma and is now in the Sacramento valley (Woodland). We are typically hot; but, this summer we've had several consecutive weeks of triple digits. So, I couldn't keep him covered in the heat, he was sweating badly enough without anything. This year also seems really bad for bees and he is a bee magnet!  Been hassled a lot and stung 3 times in a couple weeks. Tried to find Bee Ready; but, not sure if it's available any more. His seller said they "don't have flies" in Petaluma; so, he's never had an issue before???   Yes, I am doing all these things (will try the Noxema!) and also coaching myself to keep all my marbles while all this takes effect. In the meantime, the area of hair loss is growing...
Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021


Thank you, Valerie.  I've seen this advertised and wondered about it.  I wonder if the itch irritation stimulus of sweet itch is the same as allergies?
Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021


Tricky using a fly sheet in triple digit weather.  They sweat so much without anything on them.
Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021

Sandra Hodge

Hi, My bame is Sandra Hall from Oklahoma.

I have an IR  QH/cutting mare she gets attacked every Spring/Summer from insects, as does my neighbors gelding...not IR....I give my neighbors gelding 8-10cc of Dexamethasone every other day for 5 doses.

My mare can only have 2 1/2 cc of Dex every other day.

This year I have it under controlled, but previously it was so bad the lumps would burst and brown puss like liquid would drip from lumps.

My Vet said to bath her and to cover her with Calamine Lotion...she walked around with this PINK lotion all over her....but it dried it all up in 2 days, not just flies but chiggers and knats attacked her.

Just a suggestion, but it worked for me.


Sandra Hall 

On Tuesday, August 17, 2021, 03:17:54 PM CDT, <jlmccarroll@...> wrote:

Tricky using a fly sheet in triple digit weather.  They sweat so much without anything on them.
Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021


Thank you, Bonnie and everyone for bearing with me during these first few months of ownership of this guy.  I have just found the time to read some of your comments (been living at the barn).

My apologies for not giving a more complete description of his condition/care.  

Firstly, I was unaware that I had purchased an IR horse (I was told he must have been "cut late"); so, this is a whole new world for me. Fortunately, I have a dear horse friend who is extremely knowledgeable and has been keeping my head above water for the last month and half..

This gelding had small welts over his body the morning after his arrival here and I began using a fly sheet intermittently until we hit triple digits occasionally and then daily for the last 3-4 weeks.  He has been itchy everywhere on his body his entire time here.  His scratching has intensified around his buttocks, tail, inner thighs and anus over the last month. 

My friend created an IR nutrition plan, which has been followed for the last 7 weeks. Supplements include, beet pulp (r- s-r), ground flax, California source, Gastromend, Forco (for loose stools), salt, Natural Vit E, Santa Cruz pre and probiotics, Solitude.  I will be adding J-herb, spirulina and chondroitin once they arrive this week.

At the time of implementing the IR diet plan, he was placed on tested teff hay until the feed store ran out.  He was then on soaked and unsoaked meadow grass that I had tested and was just slightly high in ESC+starch.  He received unsoaked hay for approximately 2 weeks before he began laying down a lot and was questionably uncomfortable in a sand arena.  We have switched to entirely soaked meadow grass hay for the last 7 days and are awaiting testing results on this year's teff crop.

He's had weekly trials of antihistamines with little success, first benedryl, then Zyrtec and we just began hydroxyzine yesterday. 

At the time of purchase, I was told he was up to date on wormers, vaccs, etc.  However, today, I began a Panacur Power pak.

His scratching has intensified around his buttocks, tail, inner thighs and anus. He began removing hair from his buttocks and really tearing at his tail over the last 6 days. I continue to check his midline and do not feel any open sores. The two other geldings he lives with are also itching and damaging their necks and one tail.  They both have mane breakage; but, no coat loss or skin damage. 10 sheep live next door and the local FFA stock (goat, sheep,steer) is ~1/4 mile away.

The vet gave me topical gentamicin spray for his worst areas.  Although his inner thighs and sheath are itchy, there is no skin breakdown.

My vet ascribes to Dr. Ellen's and this group's work.  She wants me to test how well his diet is controlling his IR, which I can do in approximately 3 weeks, before we even consider carefully using any steroids to help knock this reaction down.  I am aware that this is risky and will be researching your comments on this.

Lastly, this is turning out to be a bad year for bees and he is a bee magnet. Been stung 3 x in the last month.  The soaked hay doesn't help.

Thank you for all your responses and I know we'll get through this crisis with your sharing of your expertise and your support.  I'm a little paranoid about next year.

--With gratitude,
Jeannette Mc, NoCA 2021

Cindy Giovanetti


You recommended worming with Fenbendazole.  I thought we were double dosing with Ivermectin for itchy horses.  Can someone clarify?  Mine is itchy too.  
Cindy, Oden, and Eeyore, North Texas
On ECIR protocol since 2/19

Frances C

You may want to increase spirulina - 2/3 tablespoons of that nasty green stuff and see if that helps. Next year way before bug season start up the spirulina or keep on year round. I ended up having to remove my horse out of the gnat infested area. Twas the only thing that worked. In 2 or 3 days he was fine.
- Frances C.
December 2017, Washington & California
Case history:
Phoenix's Photo Album:

Frances C

Sweating produces moisture which attracts flies/gnats. So how to stop sweating when temps. are so high??? You could try therapeutic NEEM OIL, adding it to some fly spray. It is supposed to last longer than simple fly spray and especially repugnant to gnats. Also fans may help.
- Frances C.
December 2017, Washington & California
Case history:
Phoenix's Photo Album: