Commentary: Lord...the flies!

By Richard Zwirn

Ah, the delights of summer and Thoroughbred horses. Top quality grass racing. Dappled, shiny coats. The unveiling of beautifully bred 2-year-olds. Foals frolicking in the field. The surf meeting the turf in California. Broodmares, fat and barefoot. Saratoga Racecourse in all its splendor. In many ways, it is simply the highlight of all the seasons.

Bzzzzzz…except for those darn flies.

Thoroughbred farms and stables are inundated with them this time of year. There are way too many to eradicate, as for every one you see, there are thousands you don’t. Flies are survivors. They have been around since the Jurassic Age, longer than any of us mammals. They deal with all sorts of environmental calamities and weather patterns, but keep coming back. They’re tough little buggers.

Between the last and the first frost, the attacks by biting flies, big and small, become a living nightmare for our horses. First come the blackflies—the flying specs we call biting midges, no-see-ums, poppy seed pirates, all-jaws, or gnats. They perpetually hover around and wreak havoc on parts of the body that are exposed outside of swishing mane or tail range.

Mosquitoes are fond of these places, too. Especially in the evening. Swarms of these bloodsuckers can make a 1,200-pound horse run and hide. While horses can outrun mosquitoes, if you really want to “work your horse in company,” try a deerfly as workmate, because they have been clocked going more than 50 miles per hour, and are long on stamina. While “Silent Tom” Smith was clever preparing a chronicly slow-starting Seabiscuit with a bell for his non-starting gate 1938 match race, I’ve recently wondered, “What would have happened if War Admiral’s handlers let loose a brigade of flies behind their champ as the flag fell?” He may have gotten off more quickly and never looked back.

The welts and agitation caused by horseflies are second to none. I believe many a racehorse career has been tarnished due to the leg injuries which are suffered by the repeated stomping/kicking of horses trying to free their legs from the vicious landings by these aggressive, determined intruders. As if chores such as mucking stalls, prepping yearlings, and repairing equipment weren’t tedious enough for us breeders, they become even more of a nuisance when flies are in and out of one’s eyes and ears, and mosquitoes are munching through your socks and shirt. (It’s even worse for my wife and children, who must be especially sweet, as they come back into the house with bites on top of their bites.) 

Devoted horsemen continue to try remedies such as kerosene, garlic, castor oil, citronella, “Skin So Soft,” sprays, swipes, wipes, and dozens of other so-called cures, but the industry will come to realize that these pests are here to stay and will be here until long after we’ve punched our final mutuel ticket. While painful to watch, our horses will adjust and continue to contend with these natural phenomena on their own. They will do the majority of grazing at night, and will seek shelter, breeze, mud, and the protective defense of another horse’s tail during the day.

Between swats I have actually looked upon this battle from the bright side. Flies perform ecologically valuable tasks (clean water, break down manure, eat smaller insects) within our fragile ecosystem and cycle of life which otherwise would stop. Each bug that bugs us is a vital part of the chain. They also indirectly keep our horses fit and flexible, resilient, and from getting sunburned (by chasing them indoors). I would bet that they even keep some of the more squeamish folk from keeping horses, which in turn keeps the level of competition in this already crowded industry a bit more manageable. Surprisingly, they give us New Yorkers something to look forward to (after six months of them)…the long Aqueduct winter meet.

So, while these little guys will test your patience, chew on your arms and legs a bit, and create some distress for horses, it’s no reason to forgo the scents, sounds, and sights in pastures and racetracks around the country at this time of year.

But beware of the bees…enjoy your summer!

Richard Zwirn is a small-scale breeder in New York.

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