This article was originally published in Chrome Magazine and written by Katie Navarra, who interviewed my friend and co-author Stacey Small. Katie did a great job weaving historical and present uses of herbs for the benefit of our equine friends. This article received an honorable mention at the recent American Horse Publications Annual Awards Competition. Here is a link to the magazine:
For centuries, herbs have been a favorite remedy among horsemen, used to help treat skin wounds, infections, liver disease, eye issues, soothe ulcers, calm behavior and naturally alleviate countless other conditions. The practice of using herbs in horses is believed to have originated during the Yellow Emperor period in China, around 2600 B.C.
“Ma Shihuang, a famous Chinese veterinarian from that time period, first documented using herbs in horses,” said Cathy Alinovi, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian from Lafayette, Indiana. “More specific information was documented in written form by Bo Le, another famous Chinese veterinarian from around 200 A.D.” Prior to the creation of antibiotics and modern pharmaceuticals, farmers, veterinarians and doctors relied on herbal remedies for themselves and their animals.
“Herbs are suitable for any system in the body,” said Hilary Self, BSc. (Hons) MNIMH, director and medical herbalist at Hilton Herbs in the United Kingdom. “In fact, there is no part of the body that cannot benefit from the appropriately selected herb; examples include milk thistle for the liver, hawthorn for the heart, nettle for circulation, slippery elm for the digestive system and vitex agnus castus for endocrine and hormonal balance.” In addition to medicinal use, herbs have long been an important part of a horse’s natural diet. Before domestication, horses had free choice of a wide variety of plants, including many types of herbs.
“In the wild, horses pick and choose which plants to eat,” explained Stacey Small, an equine herbalist and creator of Sore-NoMore. “Given enough variety, they naturally know to stay away from poisonous plants.”
Increasingly, today’s horsemen are recognizing the benefits of herbs in maintaining their horses’ overall wellness, as well as offering a complement to Western medicine. A consultation with a holistic veterinarian provides a good starting point to learn more about how herbs might benefit your horse.
“Herbalists will look at everything going on with the horse to figure out why the illness or issue is present, then prescribe herbs accordingly,” Cathy said. In most cases, you’ll notice pretty quickly if things are better, though in some cases, herbal treatment might take a bit longer to show results. “Give it 30 days to see if things are better. Stop if your horse gets diarrhea or stops eating,” Cathy added.
Depending on the plant and its purpose, herbs can be administered in a variety of ways: fed as a fresh plant, dried and powdered, or cut, sifted and added to the horse’s feed. Herbs can also be made into a paste or poultice for topical application or infused, similar to brewing tea, and then given orally with a syringe “Herbs are most easily given in the horse’s feed either as a dry supplement or a liquid,” Hilary explained. “They are generally palatable and— provided owners introduce them gradually, building up over a period of five to seven days to the full dosage—most horses will eat them very happily.”
Another option is to provide horses the opportunity to naturally graze on a variety of herbs. Plants like borage, chickweed, dandelions, echinacea, fennel, marshmallow, nasturtium, plantain and raspberry grow naturally in many areas of the country.
“We think of many of these plants as invasive weeds, but they offer benefits to grazing horses,” Stacey said. “I encourage people to plant a variety of herbs in the fields where their horses graze.” Incorporating these plants in hedgerows or as plantings around the farm creates the opportunity for monitored hand grazing.
“In Europe, raspberry is planted as a hedge plant along paddocks, and it’s great for horses,” Hilary said.
For horse owners who board and are unable to choose which plants to grow in paddocks, Stacey suggests some creative options. “You could grow plants on your own property, cut them and bring them to feed to your horse,” she suggested. “You could also ask the barn owner if there is a place on the property to plant a little garden of herbs, where your horse could hand-graze.”
For tips on home gardening for horses, check out “Yard to Table” in the Spring 2015 Chrome.
Use of herbs in horses can be similar to the way some people take multivitamins—prevention, rather than a cure for a specific ailment. “We recommend the owner starts using a product several months before problems tend to develop,” Hilary said. For instance, a blend of carefully selected herbs might help raise the overall profile of the horse’s skin to make it more water resistant and less prone to develop scratches. It can also help improve the integrity of skin cells, making the horse less reactive to midge bites and reduce the allergic inflammatory response known as sweet itch. “We have evidence that herbs have helped horses prone to scratches or sweet itch develop an increased resistance over a period of several years, to the extent that they no longer suffer from these seasonal conditions,” Hilary said.
When trying herbal remedies, listen to your horse; he’ll often let you know if a specific herb is what he needs. “Hold the container in front of your horse and offer a choice,” Cathy suggested. “Try offering basil essential oil to a horse with sore muscles: he will try to eat the bottle. On the other hand, if it’s not right for that horse, he will refuse it.”
Herbs are not a “silver bullet,” but they might offer a gentler, yet still effective, therapy to address the root cause of a condition while also offering relief for your horse.