Herbs for Horses

While there is some scientific evidence that herbs can be used as effective treatments and preventives in humans and animals, "natural" does not always mean "benign."

You probably know the types: Eager Ellen, who is sold on "natural" therapies, eschewing as much as possible conventional Western treatments, especially medications. She administers lots of supplements and tinctures, based on information provided by product Web sites, testimonials, and the horse owners on her favorite Internet lists. She doesn't say anything to her equine veterinarian about what she's giving her horse, because her veterinarian is a traditionalist and would disapprove.

Then there's Suspicious Sally, who automatically rejects anything outside the realm of conventional Western medicine. To her "natural" means "ineffective," regardless of the modality or whether it's practiced by--or under the auspices of--a veterinarian.

And so it goes with herbal therapies: Overhyped here, misused there, ignored elsewhere, resulting in a facts-and-fiction soufflé that obscures how herbs can be appropriately and effectively used in equine treatment.

Flower Power

Here's the big question concerning herbal medicine: Is it effective? On its Web site, the Mayo Clinic notes that "herbal supplements have active ingredients that can affect how your body functions, just as over-the-counter and prescription drugs do." Although relatively few studies on herbal therapies have been done in the United States (although many studies have been performed in Europe and Asia), the Mayo Clinic and other equally credible institutions have produced evidence that particular herbs can help in the treatment and prevention of specific human and veterinary conditions.

That shouldn't be surprising news, given that plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and that many modern drugs have their roots in plant-based medicine: aspirin from willow bark, digitalis from foxglove, Taxol from yews, quinine from cinchona bark, etc. Further, it's well-established in the human and veterinary worlds that certain plants can contribute to either wellness or sickness: Various teas and plant oils, fruits and berries, vegetables and legumes, nuts and grains, lush grass, etc., can either help or hinder the human or animal condition.

What is an herb, after all, but a subcategory of consumable plants? In a world where cranberry juice, oatmeal, and olive oil are touted for their specific proven health benefits for humans, the end results produced by plants classified as herbs and plants classified as food are becoming increasingly blurred. If you accept that the whole grain oats in your breakfast cereal can lower your cholesterol, then is it so unlikely that other plants with other properties can produce other health benefits?

So why turn to herbs instead of, or in addition to, conventional Western drugs? For the same reason most people would rather lower their cholesterol with breakfast cereal instead of with statins: It's cheaper and there is less likelihood of side effects.

"The main advantage is the lack of serious side effects in all but a few herbs," explains Kimberly Henneman, DVM, CVA, CVC, of Animal Health Options in Park City, Utah. "Overall, herbs are extremely beneficial in situations where the horse either cannot tolerate the side effects of a particular medication or the caregiver wishes to avoid pharmaceuticals that have limited benefits with moderate health risks."

Henneman prescribes herbs for prevention, maintenance, and treatment. "Used appropriately, herbs can prevent chronic problems from returning (for example, the horse that colics in the fall or gets hives during a certain time of the year), maintain a level of immune health or energy in a healthy animal undergoing stressful training or competition, and assist in recovery after a major health stress (a serious injury, surgery, or illness). Herbal therapies are also helpful for non-life-threatening conditions, such as Cushing's disease; bone, tendon, or ligament injuries; gastric ulcers; insulin resistance; immune deficiencies; allergies; fatigue; reproductive problems; anemia; and heart, kidney, and liver dysfunction."

Herbs generally are not suitable for emergency or life-threatening conditions, Henneman says. Like the oat grain cereal that takes weeks to produce therapeutic effects, herbs also take time to spool up. "Where a pharmaceutical might create an effect within minutes to hours, many herbs can take days to weeks, limiting their use in emergency situations."

Part of the Garden

Often herbs are used along with pharmaceutical products. "There are no contraindications with most herbs and drugs," notes Carole Holland, DVM, CVA, of Palm Beach Equine Clinic in Wellington, Fla. "With some internal medical conditions, both the herbals and the pharmaceuticals work well together to keep the horse healthy. For example, many older horses with insulin resistance and equine metabolic syndrome can be managed on pergolide, herbals, and diet modifications. These horses live happier and healthier than on just pergolide alone."

Sometimes herbs can replace or decrease pharmaceutical use, says Holland. Examples are situations where pharamaceuticals haven't helped the presenting complaint, for many chronic pain conditions, or when entering competitions where a drug is disallowed, but for which an herbal could be used instead.

However, pharmaceutical therapy should not be halted for certain disorders, Holland warns. Examples include the treatment of acute infections with antibiotics, equine metabolic syndrome and Cushing's disease with pergolide ("Should either be weaned off or not stopped if there is a laminitis risk," she says), or conditions requiring corticosteroids ("should be weaned and not halted abruptly"). Doing otherwise could jeopardize the horse's health.

Favorite Recipes

Herbs and herbal formulas are often described as being either "Western" or "Chinese," with some falling into both categories. In simple (and incomplete) terms, Western herbs are North American or European plants, often utilized as single herbs meant to treat clinical signs. Chinese formulas are blends of several herbs native to or gathered in the Far East that address patterns of disease in the body, as described by traditional Chinese medical practice, as well as the root cause of imbalance.

Herbs can be used separately or formulated with other herbs. "Formulas of herbals provide a (synergistic) balance in treatment," says Holland. "Singly, herbs have only one effect."

Depending upon the individual plant or formula, some herbs are best used for short-term treatments, while others are used as long-term preventatives.

Fresh herbs are seldom used, as they are difficult to obtain and to quantify. Instead, herbalists usually rely on oral products made from dried powdered herbs or topicals applied as oils, patches, sprays, poultices, or ointments. "I use powders of pure herbals with no additives, so that I know what I'm dispensing is the correct amount," Holland says. "Owners can add in flavorings of molasses, applesauce, or alfalfa as needed."


Herbs don't particularly lend themselves to "do-it-yourself" diagnosis and treatment. "Herbals are medicinal and should be respected and regarded as such," emphasizes Holland. "Working with a trained professional is essential to prevent treating the wrong condition, wasting precious money, or worse, injuring your horse. Many veterinarians are now well-trained in this field or know someone who is."

Henneman agrees: "A knowledgeable, herbally trained veterinary practitioner knows how to use herbs as either the primary treatment or integrated in conjunction with conventional Western care. An herbally trained veterinarian is your best bet, but missing that, an herbalist who can consult with a knowledgeable veterinarian would be a second choice. A human herbalist should never diagnose and treat without the input of a veterinarian."

To find qualified practitioners, Henneman suggests contacting the Chi Institute (www.TCVM.com, 800/891-1986), the Veterinary Botanical Medical Association (www.vbma.org), or the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (www.ahvma.org).

Take-Home Message

As a relatively new field in the United States, herbal therapy is developing and expanding rapidly, says Holland. As with whole grain oat cereals and other beneficial food ingredients, herbal products offer the horse owner additional choices for addressing wellness and illness.

From the Herbalist's Pantry
Herbal Use
Aloe Vera juice Stomach ulcers
Bupleurum (Chai Hu) and Cyperus (Xiang Fu Zi) Vaccine side effects
Angelica (Dang Gui) and Paeonia (Bai Shao Yao) Relieves back and hip pain and pain associated with founder. Helps underlying conditions of founder and with general inflammatory conditions of the foot. Both are potent anti-inflammatories
(Epimedium) Yin Yang Huo and (Polygonum) He Shou Wu Stallion and mare fertility
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Arthritis that worsens in the cold, colics that happen in the fall, diarrhea from antibiotic use, and chronic Lyme disease. Very safe for long-term use
Ginseng Stress, exhaustion from overwork, competition, or travel
Milk thistle (Sylibum marianum) Liver health, particularly recovery from medications, toxins, surgery, and hospitalization. Very safe for long-term use
Notoginseng (Yunnan Baiyao formula) Bleeding during castrations, wounds; bruising with hematomas; Slows and stops hemorrhage in chronic exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage
Ostrea (Mu Li, Oyster shell), Ziziphus suan zao ren, Ziziphus zizyphus (Jujube date), and Ophiopogon (mai men dong) Calms horses prior to stressful situations
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva), Marshmallow (the herb, Althea officinalis, not the puffy confection) Diarrhea, ulcers, and chronic cough
Topical witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) Bruises; sore muscles, tendons, and ligaments
Yin Qiao formula, containing Lonicera (jin yin hua), Forsythia Influenza, rhinopneumonitis, and shipping fever
Yucca, devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), white willow bark (Salix alba) Arthritis and muscle soreness
Source: Kimberly Henneman, DVM, CVA, CVC, and Carole Holland, DVM, CVA

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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