Protecting Horses from Ticks

Ticks might be tough opponents, but there are things you can do to reduce pasture infestations and protect horses.

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Marianne Sloet

Ticks have been active this spring and early summer despite a harsh winter and will be around until August. The lone star tick and the American dog tick are the most troublesome species in Kentucky. Lone star tick bites are very irritating and tick feeding wounds can become infected. Check with your veterinarian about tick-borne disease incidence in your area.

Protecting horses from ticks can be challenging. They usually pick up ticks while grazing in overgrown pastures, next to woods, or while being ridden through tick-infested areas. There are no shortcuts or magic tricks, but it helps to use the tick’s perspective when developing a management strategy.

Ticks spend most of their lives on the ground, digesting a blood meal, molting to the next developmental stage, or waiting for a host. Dry air and direct sunlight are their enemies. Ticks survive in brushy, overgrowth that provides increased humidity, protection from direct sunlight, and shelter for animals that are important hosts. Small mammals and deer help to support tick populations and move them around. Horses with access to scrubby overgrowth or along woods or tree lines are very likely to pick up ticks.

Pasture Management

Habitat management is the best way to manage tick-infested pastures and grazing areas. Mow and remove brush as practical to eliminate the protection ticks need to survive while they aren't on hosts. When possible, use temporary fencing to keep horses out of areas that cannot be cleared. Habitat management is the best long-term route to reducing tick problems. In addition, cleared areas discourage wildlife that can reintroduce ticks and might provide improved grazing areas.

In severe cases, you might need to apply an insecticide spray to pasture margins along wooded or overgrowth areas to knock back tick numbers. Remove as much scrub vegetation as possible, and use sufficient water to treat the foliage thoroughly. Follow grazing restrictions and keep horses out of treated areas as required by the label.

Protection and Removal

Wipe-on and spray-on products containing cypermethrin or permethrin can provide several hours of protection during rides in infested areas. Dust, dirt, perspiration, and water shorten protection time, making reapplication a necessity. Horses pick up as they move through infested areas, so treat their legs and underbellies.

Check horses regularly for ticks during your ride and thoroughly when finished. Ticks tend to move upward and find places to attach where the hair coat is thin. Chest and areas where fore and hind legs join the body are common attachment sites. Often, it is easier to feel ticks than see them. Scratch with your fingertips to find small bumps that indicate the smaller, immature stages. Use tweezers to hold the tick as close to the skin as possible and remove it with a steady straight pull. Treat the bite site with an appropriate antiseptic ointment.

Ticks are tough opponents but horses can be protected and pasture infestations can be reduced.

Lee Townsend, PhD, an entomologist within the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, provided this information.

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