Keeping it real (and natural): herb supplements that aid in common equine health issues.
In today’s world, people are more thoughtful about what they and their animals consume. Medicines and supplements made in a lab have long lists of unnatural, hard to pronounce ingredients and unwelcome side effects. The appeal of natural ingredients to aid in common health issues is growing, and people are starting to realize “less is more” when it comes to both human and equine well-being.
Just as people search for more natural forms of nutrition and vitamins for themselves, they are also seeking the same for their hardworking equine partners. The appeal of the healing effects of plants, herbs, and spices is undeniable. They were some of the first medications ever to exist. A variety of plants such as comfrey, mint, and echinacea have long been known for their medicinal properties. Even today, herbs are the basis for many modern pharmaceuticals, and the plants themselves are respected and used by many for their therapeutic effects.
Why are all-natural supplements healthy for horses?
Not all horse owners have tried feeding naturally based ingredients, but have likely encountered them at feed stores, online, and through vendors at shows and events. While modern pharmaceuticals have their place in equine healthcare, plant benefits can often be witnessed for a reduced-price tag and fewer health risks and side effects.
Generally speaking, herbs are plant-based products used for medicinal, culinary, cosmetic uses. Technically, horses eat an herb-based diet through hay, pasture grass, and grain/feed. In most dialogs of dietary supplements, the term “herb” refers to plants containing bioactive compounds that produce effects on the human or animal that consumes them. Therefore, supplementing an herb-based diet with additional herbs can often be less disruptive on the body than using highly compounded drugs.
So all herbs are safe for horses to consume right? Not so fast…
Most herbs have accumulative, slow-acting effects on equines. However, this does not mean that herbs cannot cause imbalances or overdoses. Just because a product is “herbal” or “natural” does not mean it is inherently safe for all horses at any amount of dosage. Some herbs such as St. John’s wort and milkweed are toxic to horses and should always be avoided. Horse owners need to do their research by reading the labels of any dietary products containing herbs while also following the dosage instructions carefully.
Those looking to compete in sanctioned shows, competitions, and events need to be extra careful. Just because a natural plant-based product is safe for use does not mean it is legal in competition. Each sporting organization has its own rules, but many ban specific medications that can alter behavior or performance.
Commonly used herbal supplements that yield positive results
Rosehips are the seed pods of roses- the tiny red fruit that stays behind after blooms fade and petals fall off. They are often used for human consumption in teas, jams, and arthritic supplements. Rosehips are very high in vitamin C. During World War II the British government encouraged citizens to grow and collect rosehips to use in place of citrus fruits that were hard to acquire as a source of vitamin C. Many horse owners use rosehips for arthritis and inflammation. A 2012 study from Denmark found evidence of increased antioxidant activity in harness racehorses who received rosehip supplements. Rosehips also contain an abundance of vitamins B and E, which are beneficial to skin, coat, and hoof health. Rosehip is currently not on any banned substance lists, making it a good option for competitive horses.
A member of the onion family, garlic is considered one of the earliest cultivated crops. Garlic is one of the most widely used herbs for horses. While it has been found to have antibiotic properties due to the compounds alliin and allicin that kill bacteria, it is most often used to repel bugs such as midges, mosquitos, ticks, and flies. Horses generally enjoy the taste of garlic, so consumption should be limited, as large amounts can be harmful, causing Heinz body anemia.
Valerian has been taken for medical reasons since ancient Greek and Roman times. It is commonly marketed as a calming herb for people, aiding in the reduction of insomnia symptoms and nervousness. For horses, valerian root extract is used in calming supplements. It can relieve stress and fear without being a detriment to performance. While often effective for use in stressful situations, horse owners should be cautious if they have plans to show or compete as valerian is banned by many organizations including the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) and United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).
Native to North America, evening primrose yields yellow flowers that bloom at dusk. The seeds of the plant contain evening primrose oil. This oil contains unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic, gamma-linoleic, palmitic and oleic. Some believe these acids benefit horse skin, coat, and hooves. Many horse owners state primrose oil helps treat sweet itch and other skin issues.
Familiarize yourself with herbal benefits to keep horses healthy and happy
The use of herbs for equine health is growing in popularity. The best way to use them is to become familiar with their benefits and potential risk factors to ensure they fill an appropriate role in each horse’s care.