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Horse Equipment - Fly Masks
What is a fly mask?
A fly mask or fly cap is put on a horse to help protect it from flies.
The standard fly mask is a mesh affair that hooks over the ears and below the jaw. It covers the horse's eyes - in fact there have been incidents where well-meaning but non-horsey individuals have asked why the horse is wearing a 'blindfold'.
Fly masks are generally used on horses that are particularly sensitive or in areas where the fly problem is particularly bad. They are generally used only in the summer.
They are available in a variety of colors and designs and generally do not require a halter or bridle to be used.
Some fly masks also cover the horse's ears. This can help prevent horses from picking up ear mites. Again, it depends on how sensitive the animal is. Fly masks that cover the upper part of the muzzle are also available, which can discourage insects from crawling up the horse's nostrils.
Another way of providing 'extra coverage' is to apply some kind of repellent to the mask itself.
Turnout or Riding?
In most cases, fly masks are put on for turnout. However, it is possible to purchase fly masks that are designed to be ridden in. In this case, they secure to the bridle and cover the area between the browband, noseband, and cheek pieces. (It is possible to use a turnout fly mask for riding, if it is not a particularly 'heavy' design).
Ear nets are more commonly seen on riding horses. The 'bonnets' sometimes seen on competition horses are a form of ear net, with a tasseled fringe often used to keep flies away from the horse's eyes. In dressage, ear nets are only allowed if the stewards consider conditions warrant them - this is because it is not allowed to put ear plugs in the horse's ears in dressage and ear nets make it harder to check for them. (Ear plugs are allowed in hunters and jumpers).
Do fly masks affect a horse's vision?
In general, no...even the ones that look completely opaque. Most fly masks are made of PVC mesh...if in doubt, hold one up to your own eyes.
More expensive masks often use a softer mesh.
Some manufacturers sell their fly masks as being 'easier to see out of' and fly masks that are designed to be ridden in often have a much thinner mesh...although this is likely more for the peace of mind of the rider than because they really are easier to see out of. Often, you can see the horse's eyes clearly through 'bridle' masks and not through turnout masks, but the horses can still see out of the mask, just as somebody can see fine through mirrored shades.
What about mules?
Can donkeys and mules wear fly masks?
Yes. However, they cannot wear fly masks designed for horses, even the ones without ears. Fly masks sized for donkeys and mules are available both with and without ear coverage. (Although the ones with ears look ridiculous, especially on smaller donkeys).
A horse sized fly mask may fit if the ear holes are on the larger size, but you're always better off getting mule/donkey sized equipment.
Can you improvise or make a fly mask?
Fly masks are relatively easy to make, especially bridle fly masks - all you need is mesh and binding.
If you are simply without enough fly masks or caught out by early insects, one good alternative is to jury rig a fly fringe. Get an old browband and add it to your horse's halter, then secure string or ribbon dangling down from it. Fly fringes may work for horses who don't like wearing a fly mask (some don't). Make sure the browband is fairly loose - a size larger than the horse normally wears is a good idea.
Do not ride in a home-made fly fringe as they have been known to poke the horse in the eye, with rather predictable and unfortunate results.