Zebra fly sheets harness 4 million years of evolution to protect your horse from biting flies. Easy to use and inexpensive, they may look a little strange. But, experiments from University of California, Davis, show the lightweight covers with bright black and white stripes dramatically decrease bites from horseflies, deerflies and greenflies.

Zebra stripes baffled scientists for more than a hundred years. What survival advantage contributed to that remarkable black and white coat? Speculation ranged from confusing predators, to signaling other zebras, to cooling skin. Now, PhD scientist Tim Caro thinks he found the answer: horseflies.

Close up of a horsefly. Zebra fly sheets make it hard for flies to land and bite on horses.

Hey, if you lived on the African plain you might want stripes too. Horseflies and other biting flies are more than annoying. Because they feed on blood, they can transmit diseases. This Pennsylvania State Extension Service article includes warnings about equine infectious anemia and tularemia.

Using sophisticated camera tracking, Dr. Caro and his team of researchers found that flies have a hard time landing on stripes. Dr. Caro is a behavioral/evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist.

They conducted experiments in England with 9 horses and 3 zebras. Direct observations and video recording offered answers. Flies buzzed around horses and zebras at equal rates. However, fly landings, and subsequent biting, were far less for the zebras, concluded Dr. Caro.

Next, the scientists covered some of the horses with various, commercially-available, fly sheets. “One was a dark black Rambo Optimo stable sheet, one was a bright white Shires Equestrian Products One Performance flysheet and neck set, and the third was a black and white irregularly striped BUCAS Buzz-off zebra full neck coat,” the study stated.

Zebra Fly Sheets Cause Crash Landings

Scientists observed that flies approaching the zebra stripes, either on the real zebras or zebra fly sheets, either veered off at the last minute or bounced off the animal. They were able to follow the actual fly tracks as they approached, then took evasive action or crashed. (You can see the actual tracks and data in the study.) “Taken together, these findings indicate that, up close, striped surfaces prevented flies from making a controlled landing . . .,” the study concluded.

Simulation of fly track attacking a zebra to show how stripes in zebra fly sheets cause flies to miss or crash their landing attempts.

His study states, “Importantly, we discovered that tabanids (scientific name for horseflies) failed to decelerate in the terminal stages of their flights before contacting zebras but not horses. In the last half second they flew faster before landing on or touching a zebra than a horse suggesting they did not see the target, or did not regard the striped surface as an appropriate place to land, or were confused somehow by the stripe pattern perhaps because it disrupted optic flow.”

In a New York Times article about his research, Dr. Caro said, “Something is stopping the fly from realizing that it’s close to making a landing. We don’t know what that is, but stripes are exerting an effect to the very last second.”

Cheshire Equestrian Center Has Zebra Fly Sheets for Your Horse

The good news is, we have these fly sheets in stock at Cheshire Equestrian Center. We stock versions from two manufacturers: Shires and HKM.

Shires fly protection comes in three options: body $79.99, neck $24.99, and face mask $46.99. The Shires “Zeb-Tek” zebra fly sheet is lightweight and airy, ultra breathable. It has blanket set chest fastenings and an adjustable fillet strap. Also, the sheet blocks 80% of UV rays. It is machine washable. Small, medium and large sizes are available.

HKM comes as a fly sheet with neck cover attached for $69.95.

Please consider that investing in neck and head protection provides greater relief to your horse. In their study, scientists found that flies attacked horses’ unprotected faces with the same ferocity as horses without the zebra patterned fly sheets. From the study, “There was no significant difference in rates of landings on horses’ naked heads even though zebra cloth coats received fewer landings per unit time than black or white cloth coats. This suggests that stripes had little effect at a distance but, once close up, stripes prevented landings, with flies turning their attention to the naked head instead.” Perhaps this is why a real zebra’s faces and legs have more, and closer together, stripes. However, that remains for a future study.

Shires zebra fly sheets and Zeb-Tek protection kit:

HKM zebra fly sheet:

HKM ride on zebra fly sheet shown on horse with English saddle