Essential oils are a natural, effective way to help alleviate stress and anxiety in our equine friends.
Horses can experience anxiety in many situations – from their daily activities up to the highest levels of competition. To make human-equine interactions pleasant, safe and rewarding for “both ends of the lead”, we must understand the horse’s needs. Many of the activities we regularly ask horses to perform go against their natural instincts. While most adapt, others may experience anxiety, and that impedes their connection to the humans around them. Essential oils can be a useful modality for the anxious horse, and work well to help calm and de-stress him.
The root of essential oils
Forages make up the majority of an equine diet. Horses have been observed consuming particular plants at different times of the year, or migrating to areas where a specific plant is available. This selection of certain types of vegetation demonstrates the horse’s instinctual use of plants.
Essential oils come from various plant parts and are up to 70 times more concentrated than dried herbal equivalents. Studies have shown that therapeutic quality essential oils can elicit particular physical and psychological responses at the cellular level. This offers us a unique opportunity to take advantage of a horse’s plant-based nature by incorporating essential oils into his care regimen to facilitate both emotional and physical health.
Using essential oils
Quality essential oils can be used topically, aromatically, and as dietary supplements. Before introducing essential oils to a horse’s diet, it’s best to consult with an experienced practitioner.
Horses frequently experience their first essential oil through inhalation, with often immediate and dramatic effects. Remember, a horse’s sense of smell is much more sensitive than a human’s. To begin offering an essential oil aromatically, unscrew the bottle cap and offer it to his nose. Observe the horse’s reaction. Ideally, he should soften his eyes, drop his head, and demonstrate other relaxing behaviors such as licking, chewing, and even sighing. Alternatively, apply one or two drops of the oil to the palm of your hand, rub your palms together, then slowly approach the horse’s nostrils in a non-threatening manner. Prolong his exposure to the oil by adding it to your own body or clothing; you’ll benefit as well.
Common areas for topical oil application include the poll and chakra points of the horse’s body. Essential oils may also be administered using massage techniques. Apply a drop or two directly to the horse’s body or put a couple of drops on your hands, then massage the oil into his coat. The horse’s hair will actually help transfer the oil into his body. A few drops of therapeutic quality oils will go a long way – don’t overuse the oil in expectation of seeing a more significant response.
Essential oils for anxiety
Introduce essential oils slowly, and most importantly, before the horse experiences anxiety. Avoid using or introducing an oil to a horse in a highly agitated state. If used again later, the oil could be associated with the initial traumatic anxiety-producing scenario and provoke an adverse response. Recalled memories could cause the horse to relive and reenact similar behaviors. Instead, begin using oils when the horse is relaxed and calm; he will associate the oils with positive feelings, and that will enhance their soothing effects when they’re used again later.
To mitigate equine anxiety, consider these essential oils:
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is universally known for its relaxing properties. If the body needs a more calming or grounding influence, this may be a good choice. It can also intensify focus and concentration. Lavender may be used with other oils to create a custom blend for the desired effect. Most commonly, lavender works well when offered aromatically or applied topically to the poll and chakra areas.
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) comes from cold pressing the rind of the bergamot orange. Its relaxing and calming properties are well known in the equine world. One note of caution: this oil contains furocoumarins, which can be photosensitizing. Be careful of applying it to areas that will be exposed to direct sunlight. Using bergamot through inhalation or topical application can be very effective. It is most commonly combined with lavender, yielding excellent results.
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum) has a fresh herbaceous scent and is steam distilled from the leaves, stems and flowers of basil. With its muscle-relaxing effects, basil can successfully reduce associated tension when applied to chakra points. Because of its chemical constituents, basil is considered a “hot” oil. When first working topically with basil, use a dilution of one part essential oil and four parts carrier oil. Inhalation remains an appropriate way to use this often overlooked essential oil.
- Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) helps support the body when dealing with emotions of anxiety, irritability, anger and nervousness. Customarily, it works well when applied through inhalation or topically to the poll.
- German chamomile (Matricaria recutita flower) comes from a completely different plant, and has a sweeter smell and a deep blue color. It can be used in the same fashion as Roman chamomile.
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), distilled from the plant’s root, has a very earthy aroma. This oil offers a profound grounding effect in addition to its calming properties. For an “energetic grounding” (reconnecting the horse to the earth), apply this oil around the coronary bands and to the cannon bones, finishing with a sweeping motion from the knee or hock downward.
- Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides) is another root-distilled oil with similar effects to valerian. Whether used alone or in a layering fashion with valerian on the extremities, as described above, this oil can be grounding, stabilizing and helpful for releasing past emotional traumas.
- Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) is steam distilled from the resin of the tree. Application of this “holy anointing” oil to the chakras and poll and over the heart may help improve attitude and promote muscle relaxation. Often used with meditation, this oil is excellent for both horses and humans, particularly prior to competition.
Essential oils can be a natural and effective way to alleviate stress and anxiety in our equine friends. Using them on a daily basis can help forge a partnership with a horse that’s based on trust and confidence.
Dr. Susan Albright (University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine, 1985) has practiced in Chenoa, IL for over 30 years, using integrative modalities to provide many healthcare options to her clients and their pet families. Essential oils were introduced into her practice in 2001 and have become an integral part of her work to facilitate optimal health for her animal patients. Dr. Albright has lectured throughout the United States on the appropriate use of quality essential oils, and encourages fellow veterinarians to learn about this exceptional adjunct to traditional veterinary medicine.