Echinacea Proven Effective In Horses

The Equine Research Centre (ERC) in Guelph, Ontario, in the past year has undertaken an exhaustive series of studies on the safety and efficacy of herbal supplements for horses. Many of these studies are the first quantifiable, species-specific data on these products. ERC researchers recently announced the results of a study on one of the most popular herbs of the last century, echinacea (purple coneflower, a common ornamental garden plant).

Echinacea has had a reputation for stimulating the immune system and helping fend off opportunistic infections such as the common cold. Although there is conflicting data, some human studies have supported this much-touted quality. But until now there have been no English-language trials investigating if these effects were observable in horses. Despite this glaring hole in the literature, many people feed echinacea to their equines without knowing whether they were spending their money on something that had any benefit.

The ERC attempted to address this information gap with a study using highly sensitive diagnostic techniques to determine what effect echinacea might have on the equine immune system.

The study used an echinacea preparation called Echi-Fend, manufactured by Quinte Botanicals, a division of Bioniche Life Sciences, on eight horses. Each horse ingested 30 ml of Echi-Fend twice a day for 42 days, and an inactive placebo for another 42 days. Echi-Fend is a "standardized" 4% mixture, which works out to about 1,000 mg of crude echinacea root per daily dose. Each horse could be compared with itself when it came time to assess the overall activity of the supplement. Blood samples were drawn every seven days and subjected to complete hematology and biochemistry screens as well as a phagocytic function test. Hematology characterized the effect of echinacea on the red blood cells (which transport oxygen throughout the body) and white blood cells (which are largely responsible for immune function). The biochemistry screens were used in identifying any other effects the treatment might have. The phagocytic function test quantified the ability of isolated neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) to consume foreign particles (in this case, the researchers used yeast).

The study showed some effects: while on Echi-Fend, the horses showed a significant increase in the size and the number of circulating red blood cells, as well as an increase in the level of hemoglobin (the molecule that transports oxygen to the cells). The improvement in blood quality was most noticeable from the 28-day mark on. This hematinic effect is something no other studies--whether performed on horses or humans--have so far investigated. It might have particular significance for those with performance horses.

In addition, Echi-Fend was shown to increase the number of lymphocytes in the blood. These immune cells are involved in recognizing and attacking pathogens, so an increase in their populations might improve the horse's defenses against microscopic invaders to which the horse has had previous exposure. This response is similar to one previously observed in lab mice.

Along with the increase in lymphocytes, the ERC researchers noted a significant decrease in the levels of circulating neutrophils in the blood. Although that sounds negative, in fact it reflects increased recruitment of these immune cells out of the blood and into tissues, where they are primed to target opportunistic infections. Neutrophils isolated from the blood of horses on Echi-Fend also were shown to consume more yeast particles than those taken from horses on the placebo, indicating that the neutrophils have an increased ability to defend the body against pathogens.

Clearly demonstrating that echinacea acts both as an immuno-stimulant and a hematinic agent in horses, the results provide a unique scientific rationale for feeding this popular supplement to horses for both improved immune function and overall blood quality.

The ERC has scheduled upcoming studies on the safety and efficacy of flax seed, evening primrose oil, MSM, and ginseng. The Horse will bring you the results as they become available.

For more information on Echi-Fend, contact Vetrepharm Research Inc. in Bogart, GA, 888/549-4503. Information is available on the web at

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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