Nothing can ruin a glorious trail ride more quickly than a swarm of angry wasps. And if it seems like run-ins with these stinging insects are more common at this time of year, it’s because they are. Earlier in the summer, wasps were busy collecting protein-rich food---mainly dead insects and animals---to take back to nests where larvae were maturing. They weren’t likely to bother with humans unless their nest was disturbed. By late summer and early fall, however, the larvae have matured, meaning there are many more wasps, all seeking food only for themselves. During late summer, wasps seek sugary foods and may become aggressive and persistent in their quest. As a result, wasp stings---to humans and horses---are more likely at this time of year.
If you come across wasps while riding, leave the area as quickly as you safely can. If you are alone in the space and have the confidence to do so, a brisk gallop away from the area is a good solution. If you are riding with a group, however, everyone may not be capable of a speedy escape, and starting one unannounced can lead to chaos and falls. Instead, keep your wits and communicate as clearly as possible with other riders. It may be best to split into two groups, with riders who have already come up to the area moving ahead, while those who are in the back of the group changing course to avoid it. If a horse is stung and panics, attempting to hold him still may escalate the situation. A rider bucked off by a stung horse is also likely to land in the center of a swarm herself. Instead, a brisk trot out of the area---keeping the horse’s head elevated to reduce the chance of bucking---may allow the horse some emotional comfort while giving the rider a better chance of staying mounted.
Once the immediate crisis has passed, check horses and riders for stings. If a stung rider is known to be allergic to insects, seek help immediately. Otherwise, an ice pack and dose of antihistamine once you return to the barn may be all that is needed. The sensitivity of horses to stings varies greatly; most will have only localized swelling at the sting site; others will break out in more diffuse hives. In these cases, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-inflammatory or steroid medication.
Hosing the area with cool water will also bring the horse some relief. A skin infection may develop at the site of bites days later, so keep an eye on the area even after the initial swelling is gone. Very few horses will have a systemic anaphylactic reaction to wasp venom. If a horse has profound swelling, trouble breathing or seems otherwise distressed following a sting, call your veterinarian immediately.
This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #481)