Valerian Root - the Ultimate Calming Herb!
By Patti Duffy-Salmon

Valeriana officinalis

Valeriana officinalis, or valerian root as it is most commonly called, is now well known among horse owners as an excellent calming herb. But few really know all that much about valerian, so let's get started, from the beginning.

Valeriana officinalis, also commonly known as Vandal root, All-heal, or Capon's Tail, has been used for centuries due to its medicinal properties. There are actually three species of valerian: valeriana officinalis, v. dioica, and v. pyrenaica. But valeriana officinalis is the valerian you want to use for its calming properties.

Valerian was first used back in 1592 by Fabius Calumna to help cure him of epilepsy. In 1649, Culpepper, a noted herbalist of his time, found that both the herb and root worked well for those persistent, spastic coughs.

Now for some scientific facts for those with inquiring minds, valerian root contains several active constituents. One of the main compounds is valepotriates (valeriana-epoxy-triacylates, iridoide, mono-terpenes from .2-2.0%. Valerian root also contains the very important volatile oil: chief components bornyl isovalerenate and isovalerenic acid (both of which are aroma-carriers) and also strains of valerenal, valeranone, and cryptofaurinaol. Valerian root also contains sesquiterpenes: valerenic acid, Pyridine alkaloids: actinidine and valerianine.

The oil is contained in the sub-epidermal layer of cells in the root, not in isolate cells or glands. It is a complex composition containing valerianic, formic and acetic acids. The valerianic acid present in the oil is not normal acid, but isovalerianic acid and it is this oil that gives valerian root its rather "unusual or nasty" odor. Most say it smells like old gym socks! This oil actually gets stronger during the process of drying. The oil is soluble in water and alcohol. This same acid is present in other plants, though not to the same degree.

Valerian root is classified according to the Herbal PDR as a calmative, anti-spasmodic and sedative. A lot of people incorrectly think that the drug Valium is derived from valerian, but this is INCORRECT.

Valerian has an effect on the nervous system of many different animals. Cats in particular are really attracted to valerian, be it in the garden or a bag full of powder valerian root in your tackroom.
Some cats will react to valerian as if it is catnip or catmint. It is also equally attractive to rats and was used to help catch rats during the times of plague. During the Middle Ages, the root was not only used as a medicine but also as a spice and even as a perfume (though I just can't believe that anyone would want to SMELL like valerian!)

As for calming horses, yes, valerian root works very well. It can be given only an hour before it is needed and in my humble opinion is much better than a chemical tranquilizer since the horse will know exactly what is going on around it. Your horse will NOT be tranquilized; he will just be less "reactive" than he normally would. Valerian root works well for farrier episodes, trailering problems, first time show jitters, etc. Your horse will be alert and know exactly what is going on, but will be much less likely to get over-excited and over-react to the situation. In time, he will realize that the trigger (trailering, farrier, veterinarian, etc.) is not ALL that scary and will learn that nothing bad will happen to him. You can ride your horse, trailer your horse, and do whatever you would normally do with your horse. Your horse will just do it with a smile on his face now, instead of a frown.

What is probably not known is that valerian is one of the best antispasmodics in the herbal world and works very well for colic-like situations, especially gas colic. I use valerian in some of my mare-regulator blends, as it will also help with uterine cramping. Besides calming your cranky mare, it will actually relieve some of her pain issues as well.

As for contradictions and side effects, I would not give valerian root to a pregnant mare, due to its high oil content. And there is no research on how safe it is for the fetus. It is always best to err on the side of safety.

More is NOT better when dealing with valerian root. Overfeeding valerian root will have the exact opposite effect of what you are looking for. Over-feeding will cause some horses to become hyper and may cause mild softening of the stool. It has been known to give me a headache at times; when I work with a lot of valerian root, even though I do wear a mask, I seem to inhale quite a bit of it, and I will get a very pronounced headache. However, all I need do is walk outside and get a bit of air and it clears immediately.

According to the AHSA, valerian root is listed as a banned substance. If you perform at rated shows and you are at risk of being tested, stop feeding valerian root at least 3-5 days before your show date.

Though I STRONGLY disagree with the AHSA reasoning when it comes to alternative items, I certainly don't want anyone to be disqualified from a class or show due to an herb.

Herbally yours,
Patti and Moose

About the author:
Patti Duffy-Salmon, owner and master herbalist of Meadowsweet Acre Herbs, Inc., specializes in custom blended herbs for horses, especially for EPM, laminitis, and Cushings, and for PMS mares. Free phone consultations, a print catalog and an on-line catalog are available. Visit Patti, her horse Moose, and Meadowsweet Acres at

For more information:
Patti Duffy-Salmon
Meadowsweet Acre Herbs for Horses, Inc.
181 Wildcreek Rd.
Shelbyville, TN 37160