Essential oils are an effective and gentle answer to many of today’s common equine problems and can often bring relief where allopathic medicines hold no answer. Chronic skin conditions, allergies, arthritis, Cushing’s Syndrome, stress related conditions and behavioral problems are just a few of the conditions that respond to essential oils.
How do essential oils work
Essential oils are distilled from various plants and have many functions within those plants. Some attract insects for pollination, some repel them, and certain ones even protect the plant from bacterial infection and help close up wounds. It’s not much of a stretch to see how these properties can be used in the same way for animals. Because of the volatile nature of the oils, their molecules evaporate into the air as soon as the lid comes off the bottle. When we or our horses smell them, their chemical constituents are absorbed via the olfactory system, into the limbic system of the brain. This is where emotions, memory and certain regulatory functions of the body are situated.
When inhaled, the oils trigger neurotransmitters that can reduce pain, cause sedation, stimulation, or calmness, and help balance the body. It is widely accepted these days that our emotional state influences our physical state; stress suppresses the immune system and laughter supports healing. Essential oils work simultaneously on the emotional and physical level. Oils that calm angry inflammations of the skin, for instance, can also calm ‘temper tantrums’. So as a physical condition clears, the animal’s disposition changes too.
First principle is the horse’s choice
Essential Oil Therapy for Animals (EOTA) differs from human aromatherapy in that massage is not the main form of application. EOTA recognizes that animals have an innate ability to self-medicate. In a natural environment horses will pick out the herbs they need to maintain a healthy system. So, although a qualified therapist will advise which oils would be helpful, it is always the animal that has the final say.
Using essential oils with horses
When treating a specific horse, a trained therapist first takes a detailed case history in order to understand all the emotional and physical factors that might have contributed to the horse’s present condition. The therapist may also use kinesiology to assess any imbalances in the animal’s system and to find up to three oils that will re-balance it. Kinesiology is a bio-feedback system developed by an American chiropractor. It’s based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, which assesses the quality of energy in the meridian systems and reveals any underlying imbalances. It’s a truly holistic system that can go straight to the root of a problem. Many times illness or problematic behaviors are triggered by a past incident, and a careful consultation, coupled with kinesiology, can reveal the original source of this problem so that appropriate oils can be selected.
The basic principles of Essential Oil Therapy for Animals are the same whatever the species, although there are differences in dilutions. Obviously a horse will show different response behaviors than a dog, cat, rabbit or llama so you need to identify normal behavior in the species first. Then you can read and understand the response the animal displays when presented with an essential oil. The oils are not blended together but diluted individually in a cold pressed base oil such as sunflower, and offered to the horse one at a time.
The horse will respond to the oils by either inhaling, licking or turning away. Their responses are very clear and uniquely expressed by each different personality. Often animals just want to smell the oil, especially if it is an emotional problem, and they may go into a trance-like state as their brain chemistry is affected by the oils. If your horse does not want the oil he will turn his head or move away from you and it’s important you give him the space to do this.
Offer your horse the oil once or twice a day until he loses interest, usually within three to ten days. Sometimes horses will show great appeal for one session and then show no further interest, or alternatively be rather blasé the first time with increasing attraction as the treatment progresses. Once your horse shows no further interest in the oils, they are no longer needed and you should have seen a great improvement in the condition.
Not only for smell
We often think of using essential oils for minor treatments and certainly they work well for minor wounds and even hoof ailments such as thrush or white line disease. But you can also use essential oils topically for physical issues such as arthritis, mud fever and sarcoids by diluting them about 1% in a water based gel such as aloe vera. The Guild of Essential Oil Therapists for Animals, under the review of Bristol University Veterinary School, recently did a pilot study on the use of essential oil to control fibroblastic sarcoids, and had a 77% success rate.
When properly used, Essential Oil Therapy is safe and non-intrusive. Animals enjoy the oils and you’ll enjoy helping in a way in which they can participate in their own healing, returning some autonomy to lives that are all too often in someone else’s control. This increases the bond of trust between animal and caretaker – an outcome particularly useful when there is a history of abuse or behavioral problems. Of course, there’s an another benefit as well– while you’re treating your horse, you’ll get a treatment yourself!
Cautions for essential oil use:
- Although essential oils are natural substances, they should be used with care as they are highly potent and can be toxic if misused. It is important that you educate yourself and/or seek qualified advice before using them on your animals.
- Essential oils should be well diluted in cold pressed base oil (such as sunflower) before use with any animal. Using undiluted oils can cause serious damage to the mucous membranes.
- Do not use them if you or your horse is pregnant or could be pregnant.
- Essential oils are not recommended for long-term use and if your animal still shows interest after two weeks, you should seek professional advice.
- Most importantly, essential oils should never be forced on animals. The only time we have seen adverse reactions is when choice is removed.
Common essential oils for horses
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): skin soothing, wound healing, calming
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, releases past trauma (caution do not use in pregnancy or with epilepsy)
Helichrysum (helichrysum italicum): bruises, itchy skin, antiseptic, bruised emotions
Lemon (Citrus limon): immune stimulant, supports kidney function, breaks down calcification, uplifting, promotes trust. (caution–photo-toxic)
Carrotseed (Daucus carota): promotes healthy skin, coat and hooves, anti-hemorrhagic, if an animal has been physically or emotionally abandoned. (caution – harsh on skin, use well diluted)