Queensland Itch

Queensland itch season has arrived and is already causing problems to those poor equines that have Culicoides hypersensitivity. For them, this season of year represents a harrowing time of torment and continual itching that can cause further damage to the skin as horses continually scratch and rub themselves in order to find some relief.

I came to live here two years ago having brought three horses with me from the cool climate of Tasmania. I can tell you that it was a rude awakening for me as I found that they weren’t coping at all well with life in the subtropics. Since then I’ve been researching the various treatments on the market and developing some ideas by experimentation with my beautiful family of equines all of whom had fallen prey to these nasty biting Culicoides midges.

So what exactly causes the problem?

The answer lies in the midge saliva. When the skin is pierced the midge injects protein rich saliva containing vasodilators, anticoagulants and pro-inflammatory mediators. An onslaught of midge bites in hypersensitive horses causes a defense reaction in the body that sends antibodies, histamine and inflammatory mediators to the damaged area to coagulate the blood in order to restrict flow to the site. But the clever thing about midge saliva is that the proteins send a counter signal that inhibits this process, reversing the effects of the horse’s defense ensuring that the anticoagulants in the saliva will enable a stream of blood to drink.

This can cause extreme reactions in sensitive horses as damaged areas of skin become inflamed causing subsequent itchiness and further infection, due to the horse attempting to attain some relief by constant rubbing. If left without intervention, the horse can develop broken hair and subsequent alopecia, skin erosion and ulceration which can be extremely painful; and in the chronic stages hyperkeratosis, lichification (thick leathery patches) and scaling can develop.

Treatment includes topical creams, oils and sprays and internal medications. There is a vast array available on the market as well as veterinary products but science has yet to discover a way round the counter signal in midge saliva. Therefore we can only address the symptoms and for each equine those symptoms can be varied. That may explain why some products on the market have positive responses for some horses and not others!


  • Addressing diet modification and adding supplements. This may help make the blood less palatable for biting insects as well as supporting the overall health of the horse. There are several herbs that can help support equines with sensitivity issues and it is advisable to have each horse assessed individually.
  • The removal of horses away from marshy areas, still water and streams inhabited by midges.
  • Keeping yards free from manure will help reduce the midges’ breeding ground
  • The use of light rugs, especially over night when the midges are out. A lot of people may not like to use rugs but I’m of the opinion that if your horse is suffering, you need to address it in any way you can to make it comfortable and keep it healthy.
  • Keeping the coat free from sweat, a simple sponge down and the removal of excess water with a scraper will help deter the insects.
  • The use of natural insect sprays, essential oils and creams. The oil based products seem to create a barrier on the skin and blended oils have a number of uses including antiseptic, anti-itch & anti-microbial actions.

I’ve recently developed an essential oil based spray that is working on my horses and has received some positive responses from clients around Australia. If anyone is interested in trying it out please contact me at Horsetail Herbs.


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