Averting attack by biting flies is increasingly regarded as the evolutionary driver of zebra stripes, although the precise mechanism by which stripes ameliorate attack by ectoparasites is unknown. We examined the behaviour of tabanids (horse flies) in the vicinity of captive plains zebras and uniformly coloured domestic horses living on a horse farm in Britain. Observations showed that fewer tabanids landed on zebras than on horses per unit time, although rates of tabanid circling around or briefly touching zebra and horse pelage did not differ. In an experiment in which horses sequentially wore cloth coats of different colours, those wearing a striped pattern suffered far lower rates of tabanid touching and landing on coats than the same horses wearing black or white, yet there were no differences in attack rates to their naked heads. In separate, detailed video analyses, tabanids approached zebras faster and failed to decelerate before contacting zebras, and proportionately more tabanids simply touched rather than landed on zebra pelage in comparison to horses. Taken together, these findings indicate that, up close, striped surfaces prevented flies from making a controlled landing but did not influence tabanid behaviour at a distance. To counteract flies, zebras swished their tails and ran away from fly nuisance whereas horses showed higher rates of skin twitching. As a consequence of zebras’ striping, very few tabanids successfully landed on zebras and, as a result of zebras’ changeable behaviour, few stayed a long time, or probed for blood.