Exploring Herbal Options for Equine Health
Thank you to Cynthia McFarland and Track Magazine for interviewing myself and my co-author Stacey Small for this well written piece on Equine Herbal and Energetics.
Centuries before pharmaceutical companies ever created drugs for equine use, wise horse owners were caring for their equine charges naturally. They turned to trusted herbs, plants, roots and combinations of these to address an array of issues.
Seems like we’ve come full circle.
“Herbs have been around since the beginning but something old is new again. People are much more receptive to herbs now than in the past when some thought of it as ‘voodoo.’ In the past 10 years it’s become much more mainstream,” says Stacey Small, co-author with Andrea Baldwin of the book Equine Herbal and Energetics, which focuses on the plants that are important to horses and the role plant energies have in using those herbs.
Unlike anything else on the market, this new book is a valuable tool when it comes to understanding herbs, their actions, and how they assist in healing and balancing the horse.
Among the most common problems that herbal supplements are used for: • Arthritis • Allergies • Body soreness/stiffness • Digestion issues/ulcers • Hoof problems • Lung issues • Skin issues
NATURAL TREATMENT Given the opportunity, horses will instinctively seek out remedies to cure what ails them. For example, dandelion is a favorite of horses in the springtime. They seek it out for its highly nutritious content. Dandelion is also an important herb to support the liver.
Many domesticated horses, however, tend to live in the same “artificial” world as their owners. We eat packaged, processed and fast food, and our horses live in environments where they are often 100% dependent on us to meet their nutritional needs. The good news is that more and more horse owners are starting to return to natural sources, such as herbal supplements, both to address problems and to help prevent them.
The challenge is that with so many herbal supplements on the market today, how can you know you’re using ones that are best for your horse’s specific situation? You wouldn’t just randomly grab any antibiotic to medicate your horse. You’d seek veterinary advice and administer the drug best suited for the horse’s particular illness or problem. We should have similar thoughts when it comes to the herbs we give horses.
“We felt it was important to inform our readers about the energetics of herbs, in the hope that herbs can be blended and used properly,” says Baldwin. “We do not want any animals to have situations worsen or stagnate due to lack of knowledge about the herbs’ properties.”
Wait a minute. What exactly are the “energetics” of herbs?
“All plants have an associated temperature and taste, what we call ‘energetics.’ Knowing the taste and temperature specific to a plant can help horse owners anticipate the actions it may have on their horse’s body,” explains Small.
There are six categories of herb flavors – Sweet, Sour, Acrid, Bitter, Salty and Bland – and some herbs fall into combinations of these categories. An herb’s temperature – Cold, Cool, Neutral, Warm, Hot, Dry and Moist – provides additional information to understand how an herb will affect a horse. The energy of an herb not only affects how it interacts in the body, but also how it reacts with other herbs.
“All of these flavors and energies have different actions on the body,” Small notes. “In simple terms; if there is a hot condition in the body, you would not want to use a warming herb, like garlic, which might exacerbate the situation. If there is dryness in the body you might choose a moistening herb, such as marshmallow, to work with.”
When herbs and herbal combinations are chosen based on their energetics and given in appropriate amounts, they encourage the body’s ability to balance itself.
Let’s consider two horses with respiratory allergies. Horse #1 has thick green or yellowish mucous, which indicates heat in his system. Horse #2 has mucous, too, but it’s clear and runny, indicating a cool or cold system. The first horse would fair better if given herbs that are “cool” to help balance his condition, while the second horse might need “hot” or “warm” herbs.
The problem is that energetics are not mentioned on packages of herbal supplements. Which is exactly why Small and Baldwin wrote their book. “We wanted people to be able to have a quick reference as to the energies of the herbs they are using,” says Small. “We have created a chart in the book and a worksheet for people to log what they are using and see what the landscape of the blends they are using looks like.”
“Our scientific-minded culture tends to think in terms of fixing one aspect of a body rather than looking at the whole,” says Baldwin. As she explains, it’s important to consider the whole horse versus looking at the horse in parts. For example, why is a horse constipated? Is he stressed? Is he eating something in the diet that is very drying? Does he need herbs to provide moisture or nourish a deficiency? Looking at the whole horse can help you choose food or herbs that are most appropriate.
If you’ve never used equine herbal supplements before, a good place to start is with a blend that supports overall immune health. This might contain herbs that are mineral rich and loaded with anti-oxidants. Mineral rich herbs have deep tap root systems that can pull the minerals up from the soil, like alfalfa, or you can turn to the sea for kelp.
Garlic is a popular herb when it comes to overall immune health, but all garlic is not alike. “It is important to realize that garlic comes in many forms, from raw to freeze dried,” says Small. “The important aspect is you want to make sure that the active ingredient allicin is intact and that is best done when it is cold processed.”
Some herbs are known to help with equine reproductive health. “Raspberry leaf is wonderful for mares that have trouble getting pregnant and maintaining a pregnancy,” observes Small. “In some countries they use raspberries as a hedgerow between pastures and let the horses graze it at will. If you have a mare who’s had a troubled reproductive history, you’d want to start her on an herbal blend that was heavy on raspberry leaf, and do so anywhere from three to six months before breeding season.”
That brings up a good point. Although they can be quite effective, herbs usually take longer to work than drugs. So, if you have a horse you know tends to have seasonal allergies--and many horses today have allergies--you’d probably want to start that horse on herbs shown to support respiratory health several months before the season when his symptoms usually appear. It’s harder to get positive results if you wait until the symptoms are evident.
“Some herbs work almost instantly. Think of how a cup of chamomile tea works quickly to calm you,” notes Small. “But you should typically give herbals the same amount of time to work as you would a vitamin. This would be about four to six weeks, especially if you have a chronic condition.”
Supplements should be stored in containers that protect them from light. Cut and sifted herbs are more fragile than powdered herbs and tend to dry out faster. If a blend is powdered it seems to stay fresh longer and also be more consistent in servings per ingredient. When you scoop cut and sifted herbs, the flower tops might stay on top, and when you scoop out a portion you can end up with more of one herb than another, as opposed to powdered where you are more ensured of getting a balanced serving. Flowers can be more fragile than the roots.
“We list in the book if an herb is fragile and does not stay stable for long,” says Baldwin. “In general, alcohol tinctures have the longest shelf life.”
As when buying any supplement, you want to purchase herbs from reputable companies. It’s important to be able to trust the company and know they will check the sources of the herbs used. If a supplement label carries the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal, this means it was made by a member of the NASC, which has undergone a scrupulous independent quality audit and adheres to stringent guidelines for manufacturing, labeling and adverse event reporting.