Coming to Terms with Herbs
Herbs are the oldest form of medicine, and are a valuable, natural complement to routine horse care. It is too often forgotten, however, that herbs are the ancestors to our present-day drugs. Many of the same chemicals used in conventional medicines are found in a wide variety of herbs, and these plants must be used with caution whether they are used alone or in combination.
Various parts of the medicinal plants - leaves, seeds, stems, and roots - have specific healing properties. An herb may have a number of actions depending on its active constituents. Knowing all the properties of each herb can help to determine the safest and most appropriate herb for the condition. The following terms are used to group and describe the properties, or actions, of herbs.
Alteratives beneficially 'alter' a horse's condition. They are blood purifiers that are taken internally and are used to treat conditions arising from or causing toxicity. These herbs, over time, can improve the condition of the blood, accelerate elimination, improve digestion, and increase the appetite. Alteratives assist in the recovery from chronic disease and long-term illness. Examples include dandelion, celery seed, kelp, fenugreek, burdock root, yellow dock root, red clover, and plantain.
Analgesics, also called anodynes, relieve pain. These are nature's aspirin. Some of these herbs reduce the pain signals to the brain; others relax muscles. This group includes herbs used for external or internal use. Examples used internally include devil's claw, white willow bark, mugwort, chamomile, rosemary, and dried hops; those used externally include cayenne pepper, Saint John's wort, rosemary, and mullein leaf.
Anthelmintics act to expel or destroy intestinal parasites. Anthelmintics can either expel (vermifuge) or kill (vermicide), depending on the amount of herb given and the duration of time in the intestinal tract. Examples include garlic, mint, wormwood, southernwood, tansy, rue, and pumpkin seeds.
Anticatarrhals eliminate or counteract the formation of mucus. Examples include sage, horehound, ginger, cayenne, eyebright, thyme, and garlic.
Antiseptics are herbs that prevent infection and the growth of bacteria. Examples include rue, Saint John's wort, southernwood, chamomile, frankincense, and rose hips.
Antispasmodics prevent or relax muscle tension and cramping, and help to relax the entire body. Examples include chamomile, valerian, vervain, and rosemary.
Astringents have a constricting or binding effect, making them useful in checking hemorrhages and secretions; the tannins they contain reduce discharges and cause contraction of body tissues. Examples include sage, raspberry leaf, witch hazel, wild geranium, and thyme.
Bitters, or stomachics, are bitter herbs that are beneficial to the stomach. They are used to make tonics which arouse the digestive system and stimulate its action. Examples include chicory, burdock, wormwood, and goldenrod.
Carminatives relieve gas and colic. Examples include celery seed, anise, chamomile, rosemary, parsley, mint, wormwood, valerian, goldenrod, and thyme.
Cholagogues promote the production and flow of bile. Examples include milk thistle and calendula.
Demulcents are soothing substances, usually containing mucilage, used to benefit inflamed mucous membranes and tissues and to protect injuries. They are often combined with expectorants and diuretics. Examples of demulcents include slippery elm bark, marshmallow root, eyebright, and calendula.
Diaphoretics induce sweating. They can be used to reduce body temperature in fevers or to sweat out toxins. Examples include yarrow, thyme, boneset, vervain, peppermint, and rosemary.
Diuretics increase the quantity and flow of urine and are best given with a demulcent. Diuretics eliminate excess fluid reducing swelling and fluid retention. Examples include dandelion, horseradish, parsley, uva ursi, and buchu leaf.
Emmenagogues, or abortifacients, promote menstrual cycling and stimulate uterine action, including abortion, so they should not be used in pregnant mares. Examples include black cohosh, calendula, and dong quai root.
Emollients soften, soothe and protect the skin. Examples include marshmallow root, fenugreek, slippery elm, and flax seed.
Expectorants assist in expelling mucus from the lungs and throat. Examples include coltsfoot, eucalyptus, mint, horehound, garlic, licorice, mullein, anise, comfrey, and marshmallow leaves.
Galactogogues increase the secretion of milk. Examples include fenugreek and vervain.
Hemostatics arrest hemorrhage and are good for blood coagulation. Examples include witch hazel and yarrow.
Hepatics support, protect, and stimulate the liver and aid in detoxification. Examples include dandelion, milk thistle seed, burdock, horehound, cleavers, wormwood, and yellow dock root.
Laxatives, or aperients, promote bowel movement. Examples include valerian, boneset, dandelion, rose hips, fenugreek, couch grass, and licorice.
Nervines tone and strengthen the nervous system and can either arouse it or calm it because different nervines nourish different aspects of the nervous system. Examples include rosemary and mint (stimulating yet they are antispasmodic to the gastric system). Sedative examples include chamomile, valerian, vervain, hops, lavender, passionflower, lemon balm, and catnip.
Oxytocics stimulate uterine contractions and milk flow. Examples include black cohosh, blue cohosh, and raspberry leaf.
Rubefacients, applied topically, increase the flow of blood to that area of the skin. Examples include horseradish, cayenne pepper, ginger, and rosemary.
Sedatives (see Nervines)
Stimulants increase the energy of the body, such as circulation, nerve function, and digestion. Examples include rosemary, mint, horseradish, horehound, and nettle.
Tonics promote the functions of the systems to balance and sustain the body. Examples include fenugreek, kelp, flax, raspberry, hawthorn, and red clover.
Vulneraries encourage healing of wounds by promoting cell growth and repair. Examples include calendula, comfrey, chickweed, aloe, echinacea, and plantain.
The actions of herbs are many. Each individual plant has many different actions, and combining herbs can alter these actions. With the help of your equine herbal professional, herbs can be beneficially combined to produce a synergistic action to gain maximum effect with minimal risk.
Herbs are an effective way to maintain the good health and well-being of horses. Never assume, however, that because a product is natural it is automatically safe. Using medicinal herbs carelessly can cause illness or even death to horses, so they must be used with caution and respect. Do not try to replace proper veterinary care with herbs, but use them as a complement. In this way herbs can be used appropriately and will provide maximum benefit.
For more information:
A Modern Horse Herbal by Hilary Page Self
The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Alternative Therapies for Horses by Vanessa Britton
American Botanical Council, at www.herbalgram.org
Meadowsweet Acre Herbs at www.meadowherbs.com