Western Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine (Yang tonics) and Native American Herbal medicine all use herbs that have a heating, stimulatory or warming action. These include the hot spices and pungent remedies, as well as the gentler warming herbs to support and treat the effects of cold and damp on the chest and respiratory systems. Stimulatory and warming herbs can be used both internally and topically.
The herbs work by stimulating circulation, increasing tissue perfusion and oxygenation, promoting cellular regeneration, removing toxins and waste products from tissues, and encouraging the excretion of these waste products from the body via the liver, kidneys or skin.
I have used all of the following herbs and spices in my formulations for horses, dogs and people:
- Hawthorn , “Nurse of the Old Heart” ( Crataegus oxycanthoides ). Hawthorn contains procyanidins (OPC), flavanoids including rutin, quercitin and flavone C. The flowers contain the highest levels of flavanoids and the leaves contain the highest levels of OPC. Either the flowering tops or the berries can be used; given the opportunity most horses will actively seek out and eat both parts of the plant. Hawthorn’s action is that of a peripheral vasodilator (I like to think of it as the herbal Isoxoprine), and is specific for the coronary arteries. Hawthorn works on the whole of the cardiac muscle fibre, increasing coronary blood flow and acting as a trophorestorative. I use Hawthorn for elderly horses and for those with laminitis, navicular disease, heart murmur or any inflammatory joint conditions.
- Prickly Ash ( Zanthoxyllum americanum ). Prickly ash was used extensively by the Native Americans for its circulatory, sweat-inducing and stimulatory action. It is excellent for use where cold or poor circulation are factors, such as navicular, oedema, laminitis and arthritis. It is a tonic herb and a stimulant to both arterial and capillary circulation and will improve circulation of blood through the brain.
- Nettle ( Urtica dioica ). Although nettle is regarded by most as just a troublesome weed, it contains high levels of vitamins and minerals, along with serotonin, histamine, formic acid, silica and tannins. Nettle is an important circulatory stimulant and is specific for helping encourage the removal of toxins and waste products from the body. Nettle is an absolute must if you are using depurative herbs such as burdock. The burdock pulls toxins and waste products from the tissues and the nettle then encourages the removal of the toxins from the system via the kidneys. Skin conditions respond well to nettle, as do arthritis and rheumatism.
- Bilberry ( Vaccinium myrtillus ). Bilberry fruit helps peripheral vascular disorders or venous insufficiency, particularly of the lower limbs. It is excellent for conditions such as navicular, arthritis, rheumatism and laminitis where it helps with both improving circulation and strengthening weak or damaged capillaries. It is also fantastic for wound healing, gastrointestinal disorders, inflammation and for eyesight disorders and poor night vision.
- Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium ). No other herb has as many or such diverse applications as Yarrow. It is safe and effective and in this context is specific for improving circulation to the pelvic region. I use it for my female patients who suffer with PMS and irregular, missed or heavy periods. The oil contains cineol which has an antiseptic and anthelmintic action. The oil acts as a carminative, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory. For equine application I use it in the Hilton Herbs mixes for mares who are prone to mood swings or physical discomfort as a result of hormonal imbalance. Yarrow is a tonic for arterioles and venules, is a vaso regulator and excellent for relieving abdominal cramping.
- Rosemary ( Rosmarinus officinalis ). This is one of my favourite herbs. Rosemary has volatile oils in the leaves which contain camphor, borneol, pinene and cineol. The plant also contains rosmarinic and salicylic acids. Rosemary has traditionally been used to improve blood supply to the brain, as an antidepressant, circulatory tonic, sedative, and to improve mental concentration. I like to use this herb for elderly animals as it is very specific for rheumatic and aching joints and muscles. Topically Rosemary oil can be used as a rubefacient, an agent that when applied to the skin will improve and increase blood supply to that particular area, and as a result increase heat in the tissues. The improved blood supply in the affected area will then aid with absorption of the active ingredients in the cream or lotion.
- Ginkgo ( Ginkgo biloba ). This is what I call the “top ‘n’ tail” herb because in people it can be used to help treat both hemorrhoids and senile dementia. Clinical research has shown that the leaves are a circulatory stimulant, that they will increase blood flow, increase tissue oxygenation and tissue nutrition. The leaves will also prevent membrane damage by free radicals, and enhance memory and cognitive function especially in the elderly. I also like to use this herb for conditions such as laminitis, poor peripheral circulation, arthritis and navicular.
(NOTE: Avoid the use of Ginkgo if your horse or dog is being given anticoagulant or anti-platelet medications such as Warfarin or Aspirin.)
- Ginger ( Zingiber officinale ). The ginger root contains an essential oil containing Zingiberene and the pungent hot principles the Gingerols. Herbalists like to use ginger because it helps to carry and speed up the absorption of the other herbs in the prescription into the system. It is an excellent circulatory stimulant and can be used both internally and externally as a rubefacient. Ginger will increase sweating and should be used for any condition that has a “cold aspect.” It is ideal for stimulating the circulation to cold extremities so would be beneficial for conditions such as navicular, filled legs, or for elderly horses whose circulation may be more sluggish.
- Turmeric ( Curcuma longa ). A really pungent, warming and stimulatory herb, turmeric contains essential oil and yellow pigments including curcumin which give the herb its anti-inflammatory, anti-platelet, antioxidant, and hypolipidaemic action. In India, turmeric is used as a digestive tonic and blood purifier; in China it is said to be a blood and Qi (vital energy) stimulant with analgesic actions. In western herbal medicine turmeric is used for its cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, hypolipidaemic, carminative and depurative properties. When storing Turmeric make sure it is put into a dark container as the curcumin in the herb will decompose if exposed to sunlight.
Other herbs that can be used as rubefacients are Garlic, Cayenne, Mustard, Peppermint oil, Thyme, Wintergreen and Lavender.
Be aware that these oils and herbs generate a lot of heat, so use them sparingly. Horses with sensitive skin could blister if care is not taken.
Hilary Self, BSc(Hons), MNIMH (member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists), has authored two books on the use of herbs and complementary therapies for horses. Her experience with the use and application of herbs for horses spans 25 years. Hilary and her husband live in Somerset, England, where together they run Hilton Herbs, a company that manufactures herbal healthcare products for animals.