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There is nothing “sweet” about sweet itch. One of my horses has suffered from the devilish condition on and off for years, but this year required a visit from the vet. The itch got out of control despite all the products I tried and all my efforts to put out the hellfire that my pink-skinned paint, more vulnerable than many other breeds, made my horse miserable. He continued to scratch, doing some damage to fence posts, the barn, and most importantly, to himself. He broke through the skin on his tail in three places in addition to the usual bare spot at the top of his tail. His case is severe. 

Sweet itch comes from an allergy and/or a sensitivity to insect bites or grass, clover, or a weed where horses graze. In our case, it is midges and gnats. I have tried every brand of fly spray, natural and not, as well as the kind of fly sheet that covers the entire body including the ears, but it's now too hot for that, even during the night. I’ve tried tea tree oil shampoos, a 50-50 mix of water and vinegar, and the expensive shampoo and spray from the vet, to no avail. 

Although the shampoo from the vet was soothing to my horse, but not to my wallet, we had to resort to medications. We started with a round of Dexamethasone, but when I texted a photo of Ranger’s tail to the vet, he wanted to come out since it was “that bad.” 

It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to be so pained by itching that a horse turns a fence post into the leaning tower of Pisa and breaks the skin in an attempt to find relief. It was so painful for me to observe these behaviours and find that nothing I tried made a difference. I found tresses of tail hair in fence rails and stuck in places around the paddocks, telltale signs of woe. We needed medical assistance. 

The vet numbed my horse’s tail and debrided his three wounds as dead tissue needed to be removed to promote proper healing. He gave a shot of the Dexamethasone and put Ranger on Prednisone for two weeks. We still use the spray, the shampoo, and a new, lighter fly sheet. While I hate to put an animal on steroids, it was the only way for a severe case. 

One worries about a horse getting founder as well on steroids, but we managed to get through the two weeks with no issues and delightful, early morning rides before the sun fully rises and the bugs come out. I have done all I can to reduce the number of insects around, but that is a battle I will never win. Nature always prevails. 

My horse is much better, not itchy, and his tail hair has begun to grow back. I’m grateful to have a good vet who could help my horse and force the itching to stop plaguing him. Always an essential part of owning horses. My hope that we will not have another tough year like this one, but if we do, we will know what to expect and how to manage. 

Katharine MacCornack
Published on 06-07-2020
I started riding as a child and have always loved everything equine. I've been involved in training, breeding, and several disciplines over the years. I live on a small farm with my horses. I am a teacher and a writer.