Herbal Alternatives - Safely Substituting Herbs
By Shelly Moore

Chances are you have fed herbs to yourself and/or your family and animals at some point in your life. If you have not experienced feeding herbs to your family perhaps you are considering herbs as a supplement for some purported missing link in nutrition or as an adjunct or alternative to a prescribed western medicine.

First and foremost you should discuss the use of herbs with your veterinarian or health care professional. Consider why you want to feed a particular herb. What do you hope to gain from this little plant? Why did you choose this particular plant species? Did you do any research into what the chosen herb is purported to do? If so, was your information reputable and or reproducible by another person under similar circumstances? Doing your homework will pay off in the long run and will help bring a more favorable outcome. But what happens when you find the perfect herbal answer to your questions, only to find that the chosen herb is not available, or is so far out of your price range that it is unattainable for the time being? There are many answers to these questions, and one possible answer is to substitute herbs.

If you are considering substituting herbs, then you should by all means consult your veterinarian and/or qualified herbalist or naturopathic physician. Let all the professionals involved know what the actual diagnosis was and what was prescribed for the condition. Let them help you decide on a course of action. Remember if everyone is well informed from the beginning things are likely to be easier on you and the patient during the treatment. Open and frequent communication is the key to success, in my opinion.

So, you just want to feed herbs to your horse because you read a really interesting article about herbal supplements for horses. Are you alone in this? Absolutely not! Many people are finding that herbal supplements play an important role in their animals’ health. In fact if you look through almost any equine or canine mail order catalog, you are likely to find a dizzying array of specialty products featuring herbs. Some of the manufactures know what they are doing, and offer herbal blends that are well thought out and proven in clinical tests to do what they claim. However, some manufactures do not test their products, and make claims that are hard to validate at best and outright unbelievable at worst. In the herbal market it seems like caveat emptor – buyer beware. Or as I like to refer to it, 'buyer be aware'. Be aware, you might ask, of what? The answer is multi-faceted and complex but I like to point out the obvious. For me that is ethics.

First of all, was this an endangered plant? If so, was it grown in captivity; is it wild-crafted, organic, and/or biodynamic? Is it very old and no longer potent? Where did it come from? Did some farmer in a third world country harvest the whole plant and leave nothing when it was harvested? Did a large corporation buy this plant for pennies on the dollar? Did the peasant get anything for ethically harvesting this plant? Were herbicides and/or pesticides used in and around it? Did the processing destroy the very chemical constituents that make the herb effective and useful? Is the herb mixed with other things that are proven to work well with one another in a synergistic fashion? Is this a “band-wagon” product? Has this product been tested? Who performed the tests? Can I get copies of the test results? I like to know all these answers. That may seem like a lot of unnecessary information but in today’s world I believe it is necessary information. We all want what is best for our families, our animals, ourselves, and our earth. We owe it to ourselves to try and be the best detectives possible to keep them all in the best health.

When I first started feeding herbs to my “family” over a decade ago I did a lot of research on a few herbs that I thought would be my core group. Some of the questions I asked were short and sweet, some were a little harder, and some had to be rephrased many times before the answer could be found. That research paid off and the herbs had many unexpected benefits that really enhanced our health.

Some of the types of questions you might want to ask the supplier, in addition to those mentioned above, when choosing herbs are:
What are the constituents of the plant that help it attain its particular healing properties? Is this plant available in my country? Is the plant available year round? Did the botanical supplier run out of this plant? Is the plant I am buying fresh, and how long ago was it harvested? And ask yourself, "Can I afford to purchase this plant in the quantities needed?"

If after answering these questions you come up with a few “no’s” you might be forced to consider substituting another herb for the one you have so meticulously chosen, and asking these questions all over again. No matter what the reason for the substitution quandary, you need to consider a few additional things to re-evaluate the situation when choosing your alternate. Some things to investigate are the plant family, constituents of the plant, actions desired, time frame of action, harvesting considerations, cost, other possible substitutes, amounts needed, usability and prep time, cautions and side effects, and overall compatibility with the current program.

In order to start helping you to formulate some herbal possibilities that may work for you, or may work for you better, I have included some of the substitutions that have worked well for me.

Some Safe Herb Substitutions

Desired Herb

Echinacea spp.
Purple Cone Flower

Hydrastis Canadensis

Harpagophytum procumbens
Devil’s Claw Root

Hypericum perforatum
St. John’s Wort

Ulmus fulva
Slippery Elm

Linum spp.

Substitute Herb

Berberis mahonia
Oregon Grape Root

Uncaria tomentosa
Cat’s Claw

Galium spp.

Matricaria recutita
Chamomile, German

Althaea officinalis
Marshmallow Root

Borago officinalis

Desired Effect

Immune boost

Immune boost


Wound healing

Digestive tract

EFA source


If your animal is pregnant or nursing please check out each herb carefully to make sure it is safe and appropriate for your animal's use at the time. What may not be appropriate now may change with time and better health.

You may want to consider choosing five to ten herbs that will become your core group. Then study, and talk to naturopaths, herbalists, and other plant species experts to determine if those are the plants that you want to use. You are the one that lives with your animal on a daily basis, so as that animal's caretaker, it is up to you to make the most educated and best possible choices concerning your animal. You know your animal better than anyone else, so you are in charge of making the ultimate decisions on what your animal should be receiving to keep him or her in the best possible health situation.

As always, this article is meant for informational purposes and is in no way a substitute for qualified veterinary care.

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 ttshelly@yahoo.com, or visit www.wisdomhorse.com.