Having a working knowledge of herbal medicine is very empowering, and as your experience and confidence grows, you will find your vet bills reducing… even more so when you grow herbs of your own and can create your own herbal first-aid kit.
In thinking about this article I realise that most of the bottles we have in the house for our own use are also the ones we use most commonly on our horses, so most of this article applies equally to ourselves and our animals.
Here is our herbal first-aid kit.
Coughs & colds
These are generally caused by viruses, so ideally we need to keep the immune system in tip-top condition daily, and echinacea can really improve all-round health during challenging times. The prime times for colds are at the change of seasons, and if your horse is competing there is always a risk he will catch something from another competitor. We use Echinacea purpurea root extract. Some people prefer Echinacea angustifolia but it is a lot more expensive. If you have several horses and one gets a cold, start them all on echinacea to help stop the spread of infection though the whole yard.
Don’t worry about using echinacea for long unbroken periods – it is quite safe and there is good scientific support for this view. If your horse’s infection is acute, you need to give quite high doses, up to 50ml twice a day. As a preventative, you can use a lot less.
However, if an infection is acute you really need to use anti-viral herbs as well. We find a mix of three to be most effective. They are hypericum (Hypericum perforatum), elderberry (Sambus nigra) and thuja (Thuja occidentalis), but if you are limited in the herbs you want to keep on hand, go for the hypericum, as it has other uses.
Cuts & bruises
Even if your property is totally fenced with post and rail, the chances are that you will still have cuts to deal with. The key herb here is calendula (Calendula officinalis) or, more specifically, calendula oil. It has amazing powers for preventing proud flesh, which is the curse of all lower-limb cuts. We have been using it on all the cuts our horses (and ourselves) have had for more than 15 years. In that time, none have developed proud flesh; and we have had some really bad ones. The calendula also helps promote healing, so recovery is quicker and scarring is minimal.
A severe cut will be accompanied by bruising, which calls for an anti-inflammatory. Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is our herb of choice here. There are others, but devil’s claw is so effective it is hard to go past. You can use it long-term in small doses or in much larger amounts in acute cases; up to 100ml a day if necessary.
If the wound occurs during the summer months it will attract flies, and there is always a risk that it might become fly-blown. Even if it is well-bandaged this can happen. Neem oil (Azadirachta indica) is fabulous for keeping the flies away and you can also use it over eyes and on yourself. It does smell strange to some people but is far superior to essential-oil-based fly deterrents because the effect is much longer lasting. We used it on a horse with multiple cuts in places that could not be bandaged. It was midsummer so we diluted the neem oil with water and misted it all over the horse. It is quite safe over open wounds, and in this case kept the flies away with only a twice-daily misting.
Sprains, strains & breaks
Ligament and tendon injuries are not uncommon, but thankfully broken bones are not often seen in horses. However, if you are liable to see this type of injury, there is one herb that is easy to grow to be there when you need it. It’s comfrey (Symphytum sp.)
It’s quite happy in the shade but tends not to handle hot, dry weather very well. A forgotten corner of the yard will do nicely. Other than the joints and associated connective tissue that are deep in muscle mass, most of the tendons and ligaments that cause trouble are quite close to the surface and hence ideal for treatment with comfrey. It contains allantoin, a phytochemical that stimulates strongly the healing of connective tissue and bone. It is especially well suited to use as a poultice and so to use in limb treatments. So, if your horse pulls a tendon, use the classic first aid of ice, and then poultice with grated fresh comfrey root. If you can, bandage it on for 12 out of every 24-hour period.
If the condition is less serious, perhaps just soreness after a hard event or training session, then devil’s claw is our standby. As a liquid it is fast-acting and, as we saw above, can be used in large doses if appropriate. In some cases it may be worth giving prior to competition if the ground is very hard or you know your horse has a tendency to become sore.
There is still a widespread belief that devil’s claw is banned for use in competition. As far as we know, only the FEI is organised enough to produce a list, and devil’s claw is not on it. Please don’t just rely on my say-so, though: go to the FEI database at http://prohibitedsubstancesdatabase.feicleansport.org/ and check for yourself.
In some cases colic can indicate a very serious condition like a twisted bowel or intussusception, but thankfully it is often not that serious. To be on the safe side you should always call your vet, but the use of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) as a first response can be surprisingly effective. If you are a long way from a vet he may well find a perfectly happy horse when he arrives. As well as its better-known actions for calming it has an anti-spasmodic action, so we use it for cramp conditions, which colic often is. Years ago we had an equine patient who was an anxious traveller and as a result would suffer from colic every time he was put on a truck. He was given valerian 20 minutes before each journey and from then on always arrived happy and relaxed. Luckily that was in the days before valerian was an FEI-banned substance. See above, but the withholding period for a liquid is only 24 hours.
Although not usually thought of as something that needs first aid treatment, over-excited behaviour or unwillingness to co-operate is covered in the herbs we have already discussed. If you keep the first aid selection discussed so far, you will have valerian, so use it in potentially stressful situations like vet examinations, shoeing or even training sessions for young horses. Similarly, we have already discussed hypericum (also known as St John’s wort). As well as its invaluable use as an anti-viral, it is very effective as a longer term mood-enhancer. We have found it really helps the belligerent type of horse.
From your pantry
So far we have looked at natural remedies you might not already have. There are others that you perhaps already have in the kitchen, some of which can be very effective, even in quite serious conditions.
Honey, especially manuka with a UMF of 10 or more, is excellent for wound healing, particularly if there is an infection. The high levels of sugar in honey help to inhibit bacterial growth. We combine it with calendula oil because proud flesh can still develop if you use just honey.
Raw onion can also be used both internally and externally. It is a dual inhibitor of the inflammation process and is very effective in decreasing the irritation caused by itching; particularly that due to bites and stings. Apply a slice or some pulped raw onion to the area of irritation and be amazed by the results. Try it on yourself for midge bites. Onion also deters these flying, biting critters.
Wasabi (Japanese horse radish) is readily available in supermarkets and is fabulous for clearing out the sinuses. If your horse is suffering from a cold or seriously blocked nose give him a teaspoon of wasabi paste. Surprisingly, horses seem quite happy to take it in their food and the results can be dramatic. You might see up to a litre of mucous pour out. This is much better than drying up the mucous membranes with chemicals. Part of the body’s response to a respiratory viral infection is the production of copious amounts of mucous. Although it is a nuisance, it is best to support this reaction rather than suppress it.
Cayenne and hot mustard are in most kitchens. Try adding a teaspoon or two to petroleum jelly. It works very well to deter those mouthy individuals who chew manes and tails, rails and bandages. The petroleum jelly is waterproof and stays for quite a while even in the winter. If you make some, be very careful not to get any in your eyes or on other areas of sensitive skin.
Making up your first aid kit
All the references to extracts above refer to 1:2 liquid extracts. These have an almost limitless shelf life if kept in a cool, dark place. There is no need to clutter up the fridge; the coolest place in the house or tackroom is fine, but the most important thing is to keep them out of direct sun.
A small first aid kit can potentially save you vet visits and start your horse on the road to recovery as soon as possible. However, always remember that if you are not confident with your diagnosis or treatment you should consult your vet.
- This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of NZ Horse & Pony