Horses and other animals are benefiting today from the trend toward a more holistic approach to health care. A rising consciousness of the need to see the patient as a whole, rather than treating symptoms in isolation, has influenced many veterinary practitioners and owners to look at complementary medical therapies.
Acupuncture, Flower Essences, Herbalism and Homeopathy are amongst the most popular, whilst Aromatherapy is still a relative newcomer to the equine world.
The term 'Aromatherapy' as a definition of the therapeutic use of the essential oils distilled from flowers, plants and trees, was coined during the 1930s but it describes an ancient practice. The Muslim physician, Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.) is credited with inventing the art of distillation but archaeological discoveries indicate that primitive methods existed as early as 3000 B.C. The antimicrobial properties of essential oils, such as thyme, cinnamon and clove, were extensively proved in the late nineteenth century.
The discovery of antibiotics and development of the modern pharmaceutical industry dwarfed interest in the 'naturals.' Only toward the end of the last century was there a swing back to the 'green pharmacy,' including the emergence of schools of clinical aromatherapy, specifically in France. The work of Marguerite Maury, an Austrian cosmetologist living in France, on the rejuvenating properties of essential oils started a trend for their utilisation in specialist cosmetic treatments on both sides of the Channel. It is to Mme. Maury that we owe the development of the subcutaneous application of essential oils, diluted in a vegetable oil base, as a distinct therapy in its own right.
The popularisation of Aromatherapy has been largely due to its development as a therapy that combined the benefits of massage with the healing properties of the essential oils. Extensive media coverage and books on the subject have encouraged the public to experiment with the oils in inhalations, baths, compresses, aromatic diffusers, as well as blended into facial and body oils. Aromatherapy is reported to be the fastest growing of all complementary therapies, mainly because it is not restricted to the professional and -- provided it is approached with caution -- can be safely enjoyed in the home. Aside from its efficacy in the treatment of a wide range of minor ailments, the effect of aroma on emotions and behavioural patterns gives it the potential to enhance the quality of our lives and that of our animals.
Essential oils are very powerful and must be treated with respect. If your horse has a serious medical condition, do not use before consulting your veterinary surgeon and NEVER give orally. There is a small possibility of causing irritation to the stomach lining, if taken in sufficient quantities. Selecting the appropriate oils requires both a knowledge of aromatherapy and an understanding of your horse or pony's overall physical and mental state. You are advised to consult a veterinary surgeon, equine aromatherapist, physiotherapist or other health care practitioner, who may already be using aromatherapy in their practice.
You can also buy essential oil based products that have been pre-mixed for your convenience and are blended to treat specific problems. There is a natural synergy between some oils and their complementarity in a blend will do much to increase the therapeutic potential of the treatment.
The following list illustrates some properties possessed by essential oils, which may have an application in equine care:
ANALGESIC (relieves pain): clove, ginger, lavender, peppermint.
ANTIPHILOGISTIC (reduces inflammation): chamomile, helichrysum, lavender, sandalwood.
ANTIRHEUMATIC (prevents and relieves rheumatic conditions): coriander, juniper, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, thyme.
ANTISEPTIC (substance that prevents growth of bacteria): cinnamon, garlic, lavender, niaouli, pine, tea-tree, thyme.
CICATRISANT (encourages healing by aiding in formation of scar tissues): chamomile, geranium, helichrysum, lavender.
EXPECTORANT (helps loosen and remove bronchial catarrh): eucalyptus, peppermint, pine, sandalwood.
FUNGICIDAL (fights fungal infections): eucalyptus, lemon, tea-tree.
INSECT REPELLENT: citronella, clove, eucalyptus lavender, lemongrass, tagetes, tea-tree.
SEDATIVE: lavender, marjoram, neroli, orange.
STIMULANT: black pepper, ginger, grapefruit, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, vetivert.
The beauty of aromatherapy lies in its multi-faceted possibilities. It is a therapy in its own right but can also be used to complement the action of mainstream medicine or other alternative therapies. It is a tool for the expert, while at the same time oils like lavender and tea-tree can be included in your first-aid stable kit without in-depth knowledge of the subject. It can help cure serious problems or merely be used to improve your horse's quality of life.
The essential oils can be mixed into a vegetable oil carrier, such as almond, sunflower or peach kernel, or into a gel base. The ratio of essential oil to carrier will depend on the problem treated, but four to six percent essential oil content would be appropriate for most uses. Essential oils can also be used in steam inhalations and in aromatic diffusers in closed stables.
A wide range of physical problems can be treated through topical application to the problem area. These include skin irritations, hoof rot, minor bruises and abrasions, cold back, strained muscles and damage to tendons and ligaments. Some oils repel insects and parasites, while the decongestant and expectorant oils can help with respiratory tract problems. Massaging the diluted oil blends around the outer ear, cheek and poll areas can help with a wide range of behavioural problems. These include difficulty in loading, crib biting, windsucking, spooking, fear, anxiety and anger arising from past trauma or abuse. In some cases, results will be seen immediately; in others, a course of treatment has to be carried out over several days.
You don't have to wait until your horse develops a specific problem to use aromatherapy blends. Regular massage with suitable blends before and after work will do much to encourage optimum performance, prevent injuries and increase bonding between horse and owner.