Herbs for Horses - From Feed Bucket to Bath
The use of herbs for horses has a long and colorful history throughout the world. From the days of old to modern day, the use of herbs for many conditions has been available to nearly everyone. Ancient civilizations used herbs long before the advent of homeopathy or allopathic medicine because plants were readily available and were all that they had. Throughout history herbal use has been documented for humans as well as animals.
Wild horses of today and long ago roamed many miles per day in search of food and water. These horses grazed nearly continuously throughout the day and night on all types of grasses, brush, and trees. Our domesticated horses do not have the luxury of choosing such a varied diet. I believe that our horses have lost some of the instinctive "knowing" of choosing the herbs that they require or desire because we have domesticated them and taken away their abilities to roam several miles daily in search of food. Thus, the burden of providing our horses with herbs that they need or want has fallen on us as their owners or caregivers.
We all know that nutrition and diet are essential for healthy, happy horses. We must also realize that no two horses are exactly the same and what might be perfect for one horse can spell disaster for another. So, as with anything new and different, I believe it is best to start out slowly with small amounts of the herb you intend to use. The range of "dose" varies from horse to horse and herb to herb. The "normal range" of dosage is from 5 - 50 grams of the dried herb daily. You need to know what the correct dosage is for the particular herb and for your particular horse. Some horses may be much more sensitive to certain herbs than others.
Herbs are plants and there are many different species. Some people consider many herb varieties to be weeds. So the debate goes on... medicinal plant with many uses or just spreading weeds?
Many different parts of the plant are used in making herbal preparations - you may use seeds, flowers, roots, leaves and stems, or in some cases the whole plant. There are also many different ways to harvest your herbs. You need to research the best time to harvest, and what part of the plant you should be harvesting at that time. One very important factor in harvesting your herbs is potency. When is the part of the plant you want to harvest going to be the most potent? Is the plant you want to harvest the best looking, most robust plant in the group? These factors all have some bearing on getting the most potency from your herbs.
There are several ways to "prepare" herbs for use - infusions, decoctions, tinctures, teas, fresh herbs, wilted herbs, dried herbs, poultices and compresses, salves and ointments, essential oils, and flower essences. You must choose which type of preparation best suits your needs. There has been a recent trend in modern horse care to use herbal supplements for a variety of "problems", and herbs have been used successfully on conditions such as skin problems, swelling, and cuts in both humans and animals.
We must also remember that all plants are individual and some plants can be more hardy and potent than others of the same species planted in the same garden. The herbs are only going to be as good as the soil in which they are planted. It is my belief that you will do damage to the plant's potency by using herbicides, insecticides, or pesticides on your herb garden. Some of these "cides" have been proven to stay in the ground for a longer period of time than previously thought. The nutritional and medicinal value of the herb is virtually eliminated if it is contaminated with toxins, so be aware of what makes up your soil. I recommend an "organic garden" if you plan to grow your own herbs.
If you plan to buy your herbs at the health food store, I would recommend that you purchase them in bulk to get the lower price and more consistent quality. I routinely purchase herbs that I cannot yet grow, in 1-5 pound bags. These bags are usually vacuum-sealed Mylar to help insure the potency of the herb while in shipping or in storage. Herbs stored in light-proof containers will retain their benefits longer than those exposed to light.
To further confuse matters there are often several species of the same plant available for sale at the nursery. Each of these plants has the same basic constituents that make up the active ingredients of the herb. However, some sub-species are more potent than others, so you need to know your species. Garlic is a good example of this variation. When I first started using herbs eight years ago there were twelve different kinds of garlic. Now, there are over twenty different types of garlic available for sale today.
I would also recommend that you have your regular veterinarian diagnose any "problem" before you just start using herbs indiscriminately. Then, if the veterinarian advises, choose the herbs that will augment and not adversely affect what the veterinarian has prescribed for your horse. Some herb and drug combinations can be dangerous. You must also realize that herbs do not "cure" things overnight. It could take weeks or at the very least several days before you see improvement in the conditions you may be trying to help or cure. You can enlist the aid of a homeopathic veterinarian, naturopathic veterinarian, and/or an experienced herbalist to aid in your decisions on what herbs might be most appropriate for your horse(s). Be aware that not all veterinarians are experienced in the use of herbs, homeopathy, flower essences, and other natural therapies so you may need to look around a bit for someone who can assist you with this.
Soothing Herbal Bath Teas
One fun and beneficial use of herbs is an herbal bath. An herbal bath is a water based infusion or decoction designed to treat the skin or deliver the herbs through skin absorption.
In the Pacific Northwest it is often too cold for those of us without a hot water wash rack to fully rinse our horses down after a hard workout. To combat this minor inconvenience, I like to wash the sweaty and often sore areas of muscle with herbal infusions, decoctions or, simply put, herbal teas.
Infusions are "tea" made from the flowers and leaves of the plant, and decoctions are "tea" made from the root, bark or seeds of the plant. I usually make the herbal bath tea a gallon at a time, for ease of use. When using fresh herbs I use 3 tablespoons fresh herb per cup of water or 3 cups of fresh herbs per gallon of water. When using dry herbs I use 1 tablespoon dried herb per cup of water or 1 cup of dried herb per gallon of water. I then store the unused tea in a gallon jar in the refrigerator until used.
I make the tea a few hours or a day ahead of time. You can also make "sun tea" in the summer and have it available and ready to use. The benefits of washing your horse down with herbal teas are many. Besides removing sweat and grime, you are also feeling your horse's muscles and giving a quick massage at the same time. This alone can help repair the micro-tears and strains that go along with riding. You are introducing soothing, pain-relieving quiet time, which can help your horse maintain his emotional well-being. By investing this sort of time daily or after a ride, you set up a win-win situation. Your horse gets one-on-one bodywork, you get to know your horse's physical body on a more intimate level, and you should be able to detect heat, soreness, muscle, and tendon problems early on.
Some of my favorite herbal bath teas contain readily available, easy to work with herbs such as arnica, calendula, chamomile, comfrey, rue, St. John's wort, mint and oats. I also like to add lavender essential oil and tea tree essential oil. Another body wash I like for gray horses is apple cider vinegar. I use dried herbs in winter, and fresh herbs in late spring and early summer.
Lavender essential oil can have a calming effect on "hot" or overly emotional horses (and people). If you desire to have a calming effect, add a few drops of lavender oil to the tea right before you start to use it. Be aware that since it is an oil it will float to the top of the tea. Be sure to keep your tea stirred to really blend all the ingredients.
To give you an idea of what we use, I've listed a couple of our recipes.
Sula's Wound Wash: 1 gallon
Calendula (calendula officinale)
Chamomile (matricaria recutita)
Comfrey (symphytum officinale)
Dried herbs: 1 cup of each
Fresh herbs: 3 cups of each
Boil water, remove from heat, add herbs, and pour into tightly sealed glass jar. Let sit 15-20 minutes, remove lid and strain off herbs. Use generously on wound area as a wash or rinse.
Trauma Tea: 1 gallon
Arnica (arnica montana) (NOT to be used on open wounds or broken skin)
St. John's Wort (hypericum perforatum)
Calendula (calendula officinale)
Rue (ruta graveolens)
Mint (mentha piperita)
Dried herbs: 1 cup of each
Fresh herbs: 3 cups of each
Boil water, remove from heat, add herbs, and pour into tightly sealed glass jar. Let stand 15-20 minutes, remove lid and strain off herbs. Use generously all over the body, especially on areas of muscle soreness or tension.
For really irritated skin areas you can make an oat bath sock:
2 cups of rolled oats (not quick oats)
5 drops of lavender oil*
2 quarts of hot water
Grind oats in blender into small bits. Pour ground oats into thin cotton sock, tie sock off, and put in small bucket of hot water. Wring out the oat sock a couple of times, add the lavender oil to the water, and then apply warm oat sock water (using the oat sock) to the irritated skin. Do not dry off; let dry naturally.
About the author:
Shelly Moore, a freelance writer and owner of Full Circle Farm in Creswell, Oregon, is a TTEAM/TTouch practitioner and teaches Holistic Horse Care classes. Shelly has over 10 years of experience using alternative and natural horse care principles and products including herbs, flower essences, TTouch, TTEAM, and other bodywork. She is available for telephone consultations, clinics, classes, and private healing sessions at 541-895-3196 and firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.horselifestyles.com .
For more information:
Emerald Valley Botanicals
103 High Road
Newbury, MA 01951-1727
Meadowsweet Acre Herbs
181 Wildcreek Road
Shelbyville, TN 37160
Pacific Botanicals Inc.
4350 Fish Hatchery Road
Grants Pass, OR 97527
Wise Woman Herbals
PO Box 279
Creswell, OR 97426
Books for more information:
Herbs for Horses by Jenny Morgan
Indian Herbology of North America by Alma R. Hutchens
A Modern Horse Herbal by Hilary Page Self