Herbs have always been a part of a healthy diet for horses. In the past, they simply fed on the lush greenery around them. Nowadays, monocultures and fences on pastures make it impossible for them to wander around and benefit from nature's pharmacy. It's up to us to feed herbs. But how is it done correctly?
Scientifically, there is not much proof that herbs, seeds, and plants actually work in favor of horses. But, that being said, there are some scientific references and countless reports based on experience that the healthy green stuff works.
Nutritionist Dr. Susanne Weyrauch-Wiegand explains in a report, that more scientific evidence needs to be gathered in order to fully comprehend the effects herbs have on horses. She has been working in the pharmaceutical and animal feed industry for 15 years and offers herbal mixtures for humans and horses. "We don't even know exactly, what type of trace elements herbs actually contain", she says.
In 1996, it has been shown that herbs contain secondary phytochemicals, and these substances are effective in human beings and animals alike (that is why, dear friends, we are supposed to eat the green stuff): They contain antioxidants (protects against free radicals, cell decay), act antiviral and antibacterial.
Herbs contain micronutrients:
- Bitter substances and tannins
- mucilaginous substances
- as well as essential oils.
They also contain minerals and vitamins. Rosehips are a super-supplier of vitamin C. Some horses, however, do not like to eat the whole rosehips. In that case, you can feed your horse organic rosehip shells.
The top-10 herbal list
Nettle, dandelion, rosehip, peppermint, black cumin, arnica blossoms, marigold blossoms, yarrow, willow branches and devil's claw.
If you would like to know more about how herbs, seeds, and plants work, check out this link. It provides a good overview on the topic.
No doubt that these substances are healthy. But they are not only healthy, but they can be harmful if fed incorrectly. How to feed them the right way?
Should you feed herbs at any given chance?
No. Feeding herbs at will is potentially dangerous. Providing them with an infinite amount of random herbs will do no good. Not all herbs are suitable for permanent consumption. Likewise, depending on the season, horses prefer certain herbs in order to support a certain process in the organism.
The plants have quite different effects and you can use them internally and externally:
This summary is based on experience:
- digestive properties (peppermint, caraway)
- antibacterial: (rosemary)
- cleansing and detoxifying effects (nettle, birch, elderberry)
- bronchial mucus-dissolving effect (thyme, fennel, anise)
- analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects (willow bark)
- in case of bruises, scrapes, bleeding, and swelling (arnica)
- for weight gain (buckthorn clover)
- in case of joint problems (devil's claw, leafy leaves, willow bark)
Correct dosage: gram by gram
Manufacturers normally provide you with the correct herbal dosage on the labels. Usually, it varies between 5 and 10 grams per herb per horse. We have learned that if you feed your 600-kilo horse 10 grams of herbs on a regular basis you notice an effect pretty soon.
You won't go wrong if you feed your horse herbs once or twice a week. Horses usually won't eat too much of it in one go either, which is precisely the case with incense or juniper berries.
If you prefer an even more holistic approach, don't buy herbal mixtures. Usually, the horses don't need everything that's in the mixture. Offer them different herbs, seeds, and plants separately and let the horses choose by themselves. Mostly, different horses need different herbs, depending on their health, condition, and season.
We mentioned it already, but there is not much scientific evidence out there documenting the effects of herbs on horses. But some studies do exist:
Canadian researchers found in a pilot study that a mixture of garlic, fennel, horn, water hemp, aniseed, licorice, thyme, and hyssop is beneficial for horses with recurrent airway obstruction. They fed six wind-broke horses with the mixture: the patients breathed noticeably better than the animals that were fed with a placebo mixture.
Danish-Norwegian researchers found that rosehip had an anti-inflammatory effect on horses with joint problems
A study from France showed that lame horses with osteoarthritis were more at ease and moved better after treatment with a devil's claw.
Beware: some herbs are on the doping list
It is tempting to look at herbs simply as health supplements for your horse. Many owners think that there is nothing wrong with some little herbs here and there, and randomly feed their horses herb mixtures. They are natural, after all. But beware, some herbs work differently in horses than they do in humans.
The following herbs are toxic for horses: Ground ivy, datura (thorn apple), monkshood, belladonna, scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), dog's mercury, groundsel, foxglove and night shadow
If you feed herbs, read the label. This is especially true for competing horses. Did you know that:
all have waiting periods of up to two days on doping lists? It depends on the country you are competing in (here you find the FEI banned substance list and here you find an article on the matter), but you should always be careful.
There are herbs on that list that help with respiratory problems or lameness, but are not permitted. Please be aware.
Feed herbs, seeds, and plants to your horse, but do your research. Don't just randomly mix and feed herbs, but consult with a herbalist, veterinarian or a nutritionist first.
If you keep your horses in open plan stables or a paddock paradise, you can also start planting a herb garden. We are going to talk about that next week.
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