Herbs, essential oils, and horses!


I know only a few things about herbs (good to cook with), nothing about essential oils, and a smidge more about horses. I also know that sometimes, you need to explore every single option for your horse’s grooming and health needs. To broaden my horizons, I reached out to Sara Murdoch. Sara owns The Equine Apothecary and has found a way to blend amazing herbal ingredients into horse products. Sara is also a lifetime student of herbs and essential oils, and has agreed (YEAH!) to share some of her amazing wisdom with us.


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****This is not veterinary advice, and should not replace expert veterinary care.  There can be big problems if essential oils are not used cautiously, and adverse reactions are possible.****


“We’ll start with a brief history of herbs, and then we can dive into some common distinctions that you may come across in your own investigations!


Roughly 80 percent of the world’s population uses traditional herbal medicine for primary healthcare and at least one-third of American adults, almost 60 million people, have used herbal remedies to treat common health concerns. Historically, the benefits of herbs are well documented. Medical historians know that human beings were likely using botanicals for healing as much as 12,000 years ago! Prehistoric people learned to use herbal remedies by experimenting with wild plants and observing the behaviors of wild animals. Over thousands of years, this resulted in many systems of herbal medicine developed by people with different local cultures and different local plants. In many cases, more than one culture was found to be using the same or very similar herbs for the same purpose.


Before horses were kept in stables, they roamed free and were able to keep themselves healthy by grazing on a large variety of plants. Horses were able to use their deeply ingrained instincts to seek out the plants they needed to maintain their own health. Herbal information was acquired by animal herders in ancient times who spent their lives watching the animals in their charge seek out certain plants at different times according to their needs. This information was handed down through many generations. Historically, it is well documented that veterinarians used many herbal remedies as part of their treatment plans. Thousands of years of herbal tradition tell us that herbs work. Now scientific researchers are studying herbs more closely to determine the mechanisms of action of each herb and are better able to explain how botanical medicines heal.


Some examples:


Aloe Vera: The gel from the spiny leaves of the Aloe Vera plant has been used to treat cuts, burns, and scrapes for at least 2,500 years. Research now shows that substances in this gel penetrate damaged tissue, promote healing activity, increase blood flow to injured areas, and relieve pain and inflammation.


Chamomile: Chamomile has been used for thousands of years for upset stomachs, insomnia, and to heal cuts and bruises. Research has uncovered that two chemicals in chamomile, alpha-bisabolol, and chamazulene, account for its actions as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and as a sedative.



chamomile flower in a garden


Each herb contains a unique combination of healing constituents, much more complex than synthetic drugs and substances. One herb alone may contain hundreds or even thousands of different substances. Thanks to this chemical richness, an herb can have multiple actions on the body. When herbs are chosen wisely and used in the right doses, they have an excellent safety record. Generally, the side effects of herbs are much milder than the side effects caused by synthetic drugs. This is because the complex chemistry of plants likely buffers against harmful side effects. An example of this is diuretic drugs that treat water retention can also deplete the body’s important stores of potassium. Herbs such as dandelion leaf are both effective diuretics and excellent sources of potassium.


There are several ways to extract the beneficial properties of herbs for topical use in equine grooming products.


  • Herbal infusions are a simple way to extract the constituents of an herb into a water-based liquid form, essentially a very strong herbal tea. Infusions work best with the aerial parts of herbs such as flowers and leaves. Infusions are created when the herb is steeped in boiling hot water for about 15-20 minutes and then the herb is strained from the liquid and the liquid portion is used.


  • Decoctions are similar to infusions but are used for plant constituents that require more time and heat for extraction such as barks, roots, and seeds. The herb is typically simmered in boiling water for approximately 20 minutes and then the liquid is strained from the herbs for use.


  • Infused oils are a way to extract the herbal properties into oil for use. Herbs are covered with oil and soaked for 4-6 weeks before being strained from the oil. The oil takes on the color, aroma, and properties of the herbs.


  • Herbal tinctures are a method of extracting herbal properties in a base of alcohol or vinegar. The herb is soaked in the alcohol or vinegar for 5-6 weeks and then the alcohol/vinegar is strained from the herb and is ready for use.


  • Essential oil is a concentrated liquid oil that contains volatile aroma compounds from plants. The essential oils are usually extracted from plants by distillation. Essential oils have also been used historically for healing and the science of aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that harnesses the healing qualities of these essential oils to treat various conditions. Essential oils can be used topically, diffused, or directly inhaled. The aroma of essential oils alone can have a direct effect on mood, cognitive function, and health.



tea tree oil container


If someone is interested in working with essential oils, I would recommend checking out a few different books and some websites. Some essential oils are really safe, and some are more volatile and should only be used in very small amounts or not at all. Also, every horse is different so I really recommend the “patch test” before using any new product. The book I refer to most often is Essential Oils for Horses by Carole Faith. I also refer to www.experience-essential-oils.com quite often. The owner of this site is a horsewoman with extensive experience with essential oils and has very complete information on her site. I think one of the safest essential oils to work with is lavender. It is a great starter essential oil and really useful with horses as it is calming, antiseptic, encourages cell renewal and is a great natural fly repellent. I use it in just about everything! It is important to remember that essential oils can be pretty intense and really just a few drops are necessary to get the benefit. Amounts will vary depending on the oil. I have experimented for many years and have gotten “a feel” for it but I recommend starting by adding very little and gradually increase if needed.”


Believe it or not, Sara has MORE information for us! In the next guest blog, (cleverly titled More on Herbs, Essential Oils, and Horses) we’ll talk about how the many uses of herbs, including grooming, bathing, wound care, and even repelling insects. Sara also provided all of the photos in these two articles (except for the aloe).


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