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Welcome to the

‘Art of Healing’ as opposed to the ‘Science of Treating’!

The Actions of Herbs:

When you first start experimenting with giving herbs to your horse, it’s likely you’ll be assuming that specific herbs treat specific symptoms or illnesses; you’ll attempt to treat your horse on that basis. You will hear that herbs like Garlic or Echinacea are good for treating infection; Celery for fluid retention; Valerian or Hypericum to calm the nerves; and Wormwood for worms, etc.

This is the ‘medical’ approach – to name a condition and then to prescribe the herb that applies to that condition.

However, traditional herbal knowledge is not classified under named conditions - except in passing where they might mention that ‘Celery is good for Dropsy’ or ‘Buchu for Scrofulous’ or ‘Bistort for the Bloody Flux’.

In western herbal medicine, herbs are primarily classified by their action on body processes and not with reference to named diseases. This is the first important lesson.

For example, the action of the herb Vervain might be described as ‘antispasmodic, nervine, tonic, sedative and hepatic’; the action of White Willow described as ‘analgesic, anti-inflammatory, tonic, astringent, antiseptic, and febrifuge’. This is more helpful, since there are only a certain number of these old-fashioned words used to describe actions, and when you become familiar with them, you can begin to develop a picture in your head of each herb in terms of its range of action.

Nowadays, we all know what antispasmodic means, as well as antiseptic, sedative, tonic and anti-inflammatory. Hepatic means ‘for the liver’ and febrifuge means ‘to reduce fever’. This might begin to look tricky – but relax!

For the purposes of using herbs today, the actions of each herb don’t have to be memorised as they were in medical schools in the Middle Ages. Just allow your understanding of each herb to develop in your mind along the lines of the body systems to which they seem to apply, and their individual range of actions.

To take our examples a little further; the actions of White Willow are fairly straightforward, and it is necessary to separate in your understanding the analgesic, anti-inflammatory and febrifuge from the tonic, astringent and antiseptic properties of the herb. No herbalist uses White Willow as their primary antiseptic, as there are dozens of other better antiseptic herbs, however it’s interesting to note that White Willow is also classed as a tonic and as an astringent.

All the actions of White Willow considered together support the notion that this herb would be effective in treating pain, inflammation, fever, and injury and this is what we use it for!

Similarly, even though one of the actions of the herb Vervain is listed as hepatic - no professional herbalist would ever prescribe Vervain for liver complaints, simply because there are many much more common and more effective hepatic herbs than Vervain - two examples being the common Dandelion and Saint Mary’s Thistle.

Vervain is infinitely more valuable in treating and nourishing the nervous system, and this is how we use it.

This sort of general knowledge is really all you need to acquire in order to treat your horse with the basic herbal remedies. The requirements are a good understanding of the main herbs useful for treating horses; an understanding of the way herbs ‘work’ on the body systems; and a willingness to develop a ‘feel’ and an intuition in finding the right herb for the job. This will come with practice.

Then, simply add to this a generous dose of common or ‘horse’ sense, and employ it regularly!

Which herbs to learn about:

When confronted by a health problem with your horse, or searching for a maintenance-feeding regimen to forestall health problems, it’s necessary to have a ‘repertoire’ of available herbs from which to choose. Simply because an herb comes from far away, is expensive, difficult to obtain, or has an exotic name does not mean it is better for your purposes; often the opposite is the case.

Lets look at the herbs you’ll need to fulfill most of your equine needs, and where to find them – starting in your own backyard.

1. Common and Local Weeds, Herbs and Grains

These common plants are always the first to get to know and to choose from. Get to know the herbs growing in your local area. In temperate areas of the Western world you will find most of the following valuable herbs growing:

Aloe Vera, Alfalfa (Lucerne), Bladderack (Kelp), Borage, Broom, Buckwheat, Castor Oil Plant, Celery, Comfrey, Couch Grass, Corn Silk, Dandelion, Fennel, Garlic, Hawthorne, Horehound, Horseradish, Horse Chestnut, Hypericum (St Johns Wort), Lavender, Linseed, St. Mary’s Thistle, Millet, Mistletoe, Nettle, Oats, Parsley, Peppermint, Red Clover, Raspberry, Rosehips, Rosemary, Rue, Sage, Shepherds Purse, Thyme, Wild Lettuce, Wormwood, Yarrow.

2. Culinary and other Commercial Herbs

This group is the next to consider, and are available readily from health food stores and supermarkets:

Cayenne Pepper, Chamomile, Fenugreek, Ginger, Senna.

3. Popular Herbs and Treatments from the Health Food Store

These herbs are all common and are becoming more and more widely available - either dried or in various preparations like ointments or extracts:

Arnica, Calendula, Devils Claw, Echinacea, Ginseng, Ginkgo Biloba, Horsetail (Equisetum), Juniper, Marshmallow, Passion Flower, Rue, Skullcap, Sarsaparilla, Slippery Elm, Thuja, Valerian, Vervain, Witch Hazel, Wild Yam.

These three groupings contain 75% of the herbs used by many professional western herbalists. This may seem surprising, but it’s the truth. Herbal medicine is really all about simple, applied commonsense.

Dose Levels and How to Feed Herbs.

Herb dose levels is one of the subjects that attract a great deal of criticism from the orthodox veterinary establishment. Orthodox medical practitioners have been brought up on dose-specific pharmaceutical products, and recommended daily intake specifications from the ‘science’ of nutrition.

While it is undeniably necessary to show extreme caution with pharmaceutical drugs – herbs are a different matter altogether. There are certainly cautions with the use and dosage of some herbs. However the herbs mentioned above, especially those from groups 1 and 2, very rarely ever have side effects if used in sensible doses. In almost all cases very large quantities would have to be administered, almost certainly force-fed against the horse’s will, to show any signs of upset whatsoever.

Caution needs to be exercised with other herbs you might wish to administer, so check anything you’re not sure of with a qualified herbalist before giving it to your horse.

If a nutritional scientist were to analyze the herbs above, he would find there were useful amounts of vitamins and minerals, but in most cases he would conclude that they would stack up poorly in quantitative terms against the artificially formulated supplements. He would conclude there is not enough calcium or phosphorous or iron or vitamin E, for example, to match the recommended daily averages his science has specified.

These are the next most important lessons in herbal medicine. We need to understand that; good health is not primarily due to what or how much we put in the mouth; that food substances and their effects on bodily systems are not subject to mechanistic analysis; and that ‘wellness’ cannot be achieved by managing symptoms of ‘un-wellness’.

When it comes to dosage, there is not only disagreement between herbalists and conventional practitioners. To further complicate matters there are various schools of thought within herbalism. These can be loosely grouped into adherents of - the Physical Dose, the Trigger Dose and the Homeopathic Dose.

The detailed arguments between the three groups need not concern us here, but for your interest, the following comments might help before we get on with our discussion.

The Physical Dose

The physical dose school of thought in herbal medicine tries to measure and administer the amount of individual ingredients in each herb known to have positive effects on health. This means that pharmacological and nutritional scientists’ aim is to identify and measure the physical quantity of certain substances contained in the herb, which they see as being the active ingredients. They then try to match them with the pharmacological and nutritional requirements which, they also seek to measure.

Trying to fit a physical dose of an herbal medicine into the nutritional framework of ‘recommended daily averages’ simply doesn’t work as there is nothing more different, than the functioning of one horse’s metabolism as compared to another. Assuming that all horses require a certain fixed amount of this or that vitamin, mineral or nutritional substance is nonsense, because the aim is to treat the ‘individual horse’ and not some idea of the ‘average’ horse.

When looking at the health picture of a horse we need to consider as a minimum;

· The whole picture of dietary, medical and work history;

· The present health and metabolic efficiency;

· The nervous system and the demands of work;

· The individual animal’s instinctive requirements, which will vary from to day to day and season to season.

A careful evaluation of all the above factors would need to be taken into account to make recommended daily averages in any way ‘scientific’. Basically, the ‘physical dose’ herbalists end up having to prescribe very large doses to make their numbers fit, and in the end it simply defies common sense and experience in the field.

The Homeopathic Dose

This school of thought can be seen as diametrically opposed to the former, where homeopaths administer minuscule doses of certain herbs and substances to treat illness and imbalance.

Homeopaths are very scientific in their own way, and aim to match very specific substances and potencies to reverse the processes of illness precisely.

A good and experienced Homeopath has awesome power to set such reversals in motion.

Even the Homeopath, however, concedes that other management factors and feeding requirements must also form part of any rehabilitation. They often, quite rightly, end up with herbal and other common sense suggestions to accompany their specific treatments.

The Trigger Dose

Adherents to the ‘trigger dose’ (of which I am one) know that often very small doses indeed, of the correct herbs, are all that is required for healing. It has been proven to me time and time again that tiny amounts of the correct herbal (or any other substances) trigger positive changes to take place in metabolic balances, digestion, excretion, immune and nervous system responses – and these, result in healing.

Of course, this also defies conventional scientific measurement. But then, trying to turn the ‘art of healing’ into a ‘science’, is simply a waste of time!

The old timers would say a handful of herbs is a proper dose for a horse - just as a teaspoon of dried herbs in a cup of boiling water is the proper dose for a human cup of tea – and this seems to be true. If you watch your horse seeking herbs and ‘weeds’ along the side of the road or in the hedgerow you will see him taking a little of this and a little of that, in quite small quantities usually. He certainly doesn’t ingest serious quantities as when you watch him eating grain or hay in his stall, or out in among good fresh green pasture.

For those new to herbalism - suggested dose amounts for herbs may seem somewhat inexact. However, when dealing with herbs, it is not necessary (and is in fact counterproductive) for the herbalist to attempt to be too ‘scientific’. What is important, is that the horse receives the appropriate herb regularly in small amounts.

Often the prescribed quantities for commercial herbal or nutritional preparations are much more than the horse needs. This is to make the owner feel happy with what seems to him to be a respectable amount.

How would you feel, for example, if the directions on the box of dried Kelp said that a quarter of a teaspoon every couple of days is more than enough!

Tips and Traps.

There are a few ‘traps’ for someone new to the herbal field – one of which, is fairly acceptable common practice, the other of which is to be avoided. There are also some possible reactions to be aware of, and some safety considerations to bear in mind, when starting to treat your horse herbally.

The ‘Buckshot’ Approach

As you read up on each of the herbs and as you get to know them, you’ll become more and more confused because of the multiple actions and uses ascribed to each of them. You’ll find, for example, that Vervain in a recent herbal book is cited as good ‘to help strengthen and restore the nervous system particularly after illness, for any liver complaints, to promote milk production, to help with mouth ulcers and with inflammation of the eyes.’ (This is just a re-write of its actions in plain English). Now this seems to be fairly helpful on the surface, but when you read a bigger book you get a bigger list. It‘s not too long before you have a large number of herbs - all of which are ‘good for the nervous system’ or ‘good for the liver’ or ‘good for the breeding mare’. The question is - how do we choose from amongst them?

This overload of information often leads to the ‘buckshot approach’ in herbal medicine. This involves putting all the herbs you can think for, for example the liver, in a single mix or pill, closing your eyes, and hoping for the best. This approach can work to some extent, but is not as effective as individually formulated treatment.

This is the approach used in the formulation of many supplements and proprietary herbal ‘medicines’. If there is no coherence between the herbs in the list of ingredients of a proprietary herbal mixture - this is a ‘buckshot’ mix made up by an amateur.

There are important ingredients missing from the off-the-shelf ‘buckshot’ approach - not the least being the observer’s intentions and the interaction of the energies between the practitioner and the patient. Herbal medicine operates on the premise that we are not ‘what we eat’, but a combination of what we eat and the love and care put into the preparation of what goes into our mouths (ask any good cook!), along with the compassion and intentions in preparing and administering formulations.

As we all know, the scientific approach has no way of measuring or understanding a system which is other than mechanistic, and we and our animals as living creatures are far, far more than that!

When starting out, it’s perfectly acceptable to use combinations of a number of herbs known to be useful in certain conditions, as long as they are used with care, common sense, knowledge and the right intention. As you acquire more knowledge about herbs and develop a feel for the way in which herbs operate on the various body systems, you’ll be able to narrow down the best herbs for the job at hand – this skill comes with practice and time.

‘More is Better’

When someone is starting out with herbs, in addition to the buckshot approach they are often tempted to use the ‘more is better’ approach, which is based on the assumption that if a little of something is good for you then more must be better.

This is a much more dangerous practice, and is to be avoided.

There is a fundamental law in herbal medicine that states that “if a little of a particular herb produces one effect in the body; too much of the same herb will produce the opposite effect”. A few carrots as a treat for your horse provides an excellent source of vitamin A and many other vitamins and minerals; a sack full of carrots in a single feed could cause Vitamin A poisoning and liver damage.

In fact, the whole science of homeopathy mentioned earlier, is based around this very principal – but applied in the opposite manner. For example, if one of the main symptoms of strychnine poisoning is muscular contractions in the stomach and solar plexus area. Tiny, tiny doses of the same herb can be made into homeopathic medicines to relieve a patient afflicted by similar contractions.

This remedy is known as Nux Vomica, and is made by extreme dilution of a tincture of the deadly Indian Poison Nut - the crushed seeds of which contain about 5% strychnine and other poisonous substances.

From the herbal perspective, the ‘more is better’ is at best an unnecessarily expensive, and at worst, a dangerous approach that is to be avoided.


Very rarely, a horse may seem to ‘react’ to the initial introduction of herbs to his diet. A reaction is usually an indication that the horse’s metabolism, while desperately needing some ingredient found in the herb, will react as if to an overdose with initial contact. This response is tested by a brief interruption of the herbal treatment, and resumption at a smaller dose, which is then built up. The reaction almost never recurs.

Sometimes the horse’s original symptoms may occasionally seem to worsen. If this happens, again simply cease feeding the herbs for a few days, and then restart at a fraction of the original dose.

Occasionally also, the horse’s coat may change colour, and in this case the owner needs to assess whether the coat is simply looking healthier after the introduction of the herbs (the usual, desirable, scenario), or is just different. Usually if this is a simple initial change of colour, the coat will change back after a short time.

If there is a change in the horse’s stool after the introduction of his herbal mix – the best approach is usually to watch and wait, and use cold Chamomile tea to dampen down his feed.

Common herbs from the list above are very unlikely to produce serious scours. However, if this seems to be the case, stop feeding the herbs for a few days and replace them with a cup of Slippery Elm powder mixed into a paste with Chamomile tea, and Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, twice daily in the interim.

The rule of thumb in watching for reactions is to note any deviation from what is normal for that particular horse, and to assess the importance of these deviations. Any undesirable reactions are very unlikely, while desirable reactions are very likely.

In all cases, it is best to seek a professional diagnosis from your Vet as to the nature of any particular injury or condition. If you then chose to treat the animal herbally, and experience unusual reactions, you should consult a professional Herbalist.

Herbal Therapy

This article was written by Robert McDowell, Herbalist

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