Calming Herbs for Horses

Horse calmers, whether herbal, aromatherapy, mineral, or homeopathic, are one of the biggest sectors in the supplement industry. Perhaps we should ask ourselves WHY?

There is no doubt that many animals’ lives are becoming more and more stressful.  Competition, travelling, lack of exercise, enforced confinement in an unnatural living environment, feeding regimens, reduced interaction with their own species, all contribute to raised anxiety and increased stress.

Just recently I was contacted by a customer asking about the statement on one of our products which contains Milk Thistle: “Do not use in conjunction with P450 drugs.” P450 drugs are anti-psychotics usually given to people with bipolar disorders, such as schizophrenia! The FDA requires manufacturers to put such warnings on their products.

Rather naively, I made a joke of this to an American vet friend of mine saying, “I don’t imagine there are a lot of horses on anti-psychotics!”

“You would be surprised,” she said. “I’ve heard that these drugs are used extensively on horses in some circles.”

My advice, as a horse-owner and medical herbalist, is, before using drugs, herbs, essential oils or mineral-based “calmers,” ask yourself the following questions to provide insight into the cause of your horse’s behaviour:

• Am I over-feeding my horse?
• Is the food too high in energy?
• Is my horse being exercised enough in relation to the food intake?
• Is there enough fibre in his diet?
• Is my horse spending too much time in the stall/stable?
• Does my horse have enough turnout time to relax and interact with other horses?
• Is the barn/stable environment stressful?
• Is my horse’s behaviour due to pain?
• Do the saddle and bridle fit properly?
• Are his teeth in need of attention?
• If this is new behaviour, when did it start and why?
• Is there an outside trigger for his behaviour?
• Is my horse losing weight, could this be due to ulceration?
• Is my mare’s behaviour due to her hormonal cycle?
• Does the behaviour only occur at certain times?

Unfortunately, even after you have checked that you are doing everything you can to help your horse, there will always be a few animals that, for whatever reason, still exhibit both physical and emotional stress-related behaviour. This may be due to previous bad experiences, learned responses, inappropriate training, breeding, or current physical conditions such as gastric ulceration, hormonal imbalances, pain, or undiagnosed injury.

Nature has provided us with a wealth of herbs that will both relax and nurture the nervous system, helping calm the horse, thus allowing the body to heal and strengthen itself. Remember, the philosophy of herbal medicine is to treat the whole individual, both mentally and physically, rather than just trying to suppress the presenting symptoms.

Valerian – Valeriana officinalis
Probably the most widely known of the calming herbs, valerian is so effective that it has been designated as a prohibited substance by many of the equine regulatory bodies. Valerian has a calming effect on the brain of both man and animals, and has been proven to be a mental relaxant and to aid in sleep disorders. The herb is not addictive and has no connection whatsoever with the drug Valium. One of the lesser known actions of Valerian is that it has a relaxing and calming effect on the smooth muscles in the gut. If your horse’s nervousness transfers itself to his/her gut (loose droppings/colic symptoms), valerian will slow down peristalsis, and in consequence slow down the passage of food through the gut, helping relax the digestive system and improve the utilization of food in the gut.

A word of caution: Valerian could enhance the effect of synthetic sedatives or tranquilizers, worth bearing in mind if your horse is due to have dental work or any procedure that may necessitate the use of pharmaceutical sedatives.

Chamomile – Matricaria recutita; Chamomilla recutita
Chamomile is a wonderful relaxant and is effective for both nervous and muscular applications. It is a supremely safe herb and can be used on even the youngest animals. Traditionally used to help with sleeplessness, it is also excellent for nervous tension, anxiety, and pain relief (especially of colicky spasmodic pain). Chamomile is a digestive remedy with a specific use for nervous digestive conditions such as diarrhea. It is anti-inflammatory, and I use it extensively in conjunction with Valerian for any digestive disorder that has a nervous component or origin. The name ‘Matricaria’ comes from the word Matrix, meaning ‘mother of the womb,’ explaining its traditional use for female reproductive problems, especially those involving tension and pain.  Chamomile is one of the most valuable single remedies in the Materia Medica and can rightly be awarded ‘super herb’ status.

Vervain – Verbena officinalis
Vervain was one of the Druids’ most sacred herbs and has been used traditionally in Europe for centuries. The herb is used widely as a relaxant and antispasmodic and has a strong affiliation to the digestive system. I find it combines well with Valerian especially if the origin of the horse’s behaviour could be digestive.

Lemon Balm - Melissa officinalis
This is such an easy herb to grow and makes the most wonderful tea; just the smell of the herb makes you feel happier! I use it in my valerian-free calming mix for horses and the herb’s principle actions are on the heart and the stomach. Lemon Balm contains volatile oils rich in terpenes, which give the herb its wonderful smell, and make the tea so refreshing and calming.  Experiments have shown that the action of the volatile oil starts in the brain and is then transported via the olfactory nerve to the limbic system, confirming the herb’s action as a tranquilizer. As aromatherapy, Melissa essential oil is often combined with Lavender oil for its beneficial effects on the nervous system.

Skullcap – Scutellaria lateriflora
This herb, when combined with Valerian, is excellent for hysteria. I use it in one of the herbal mixtures we produce for dogs suffering from epilepsy (one of the old English names for Skullcap is ‘mad dog’). Skullcap can reduce both the severity and the incidence of fits, and has enabled a reduction in the reliance on drugs such as phenabarbitone.

Skullcap, like Vervain, is what is known as a trophorestorative - herbs whose actions help calm and relax the nervous system, and heal and restore nervous tissue. The multi-faceted actions of herbs address not only the symptoms but also the origins of the illness. Skullcap is an antispasmodic and anticonvulsive, has a relaxant action on the nervous system, and can be used for reducing irritability, restlessness, and irritable digestive conditions.

Natural remedies take time to work and will require patience. Remember that horses have long memories and traumatic events that occurred in the past will not be forgotten or overcome in just a few weeks.

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.

Category: Herbs For Horses

Opinions expressed herein are those of the experts consulted and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors and publishers. The information in this publication is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to medically prescribe or diagnose in any way. ~ Holistic Horse Inc.