herbal liniments and poultice

Topical liniments and poultices have been part of the horse world for centuries, and are routinely used on the legs. But they can also make an inexpensive and healthy contribution to your horse’s back health.

 In the past, veterinarians used herbal medicines for topical treatments because little else existed. That’s not the case today. In fact, the typical “standby” liniments commonly found in barns everywhere often contain harsh ingredients or chemicals. Most commercial liniments may feel great on our hands because of our thin skin, but they do not sufficiently penetrate a horse’s skin. Products made with herbs or essential oils, on the other hand, penetrate the skin much more effectively, soothing the muscles and ligaments – without the chemicals. Let’s look at the difference between liniments and poultices and how they can help heal your horse’s back.


A liniment is a liquid or slightly thickened gel blend composed of plant extracts, essential oils and other compounds. The base liquid is usually vinegar, rubbing alcohol, aloe vera, witch hazel, or Everclear/grain alcohol.

Liniments can be made from many combinations of herbal extracts. Chinese liniments have been developed over centuries and often contain a greater number of herbs than a formula designed with Western herbs. The ingredients in Chinese formulas are balanced according to Chinese patterns of diagnosis, in which practitioners consider pain a stagnation of energy. Most Western herbal liniments are designed as either “warming” or “cooling”. The formulas are simpler than their Chinese counterparts, and easy to create yourself.

Using liniments to treat your horse’s back

Commonly used as part of the cooling process after work, liniments also help when back pain is present. The watery nature of a liniment makes it easy to sponge over the horse’s back. In cold weather, use warm water and limit the amount of cold liquid used. Avoid soaking the back.

The most common back conditions treated by liniments are related to musculoskeletal issues. The top of the spine down the center of the back is often thought of as the bone of the spine. In reality, we’re feeling a ligament that covers the top of the tall spinous processes in the horse’s back. Falls, saddles that do not fit, or trauma from an attack by another horse can damage that ligament, and this doesn’t include any of the other creative ways a horse may injure his back. You can treat your horse with warming or cooling liniments, depending on his condition.

Warming and cooling liniments

Warming: Liniments made with warming herbs work well for all forms of chronic muscle pain, muscle spasms, ligamentous damage and back pain from poor saddle fit.

Warming liniments may also benefit the sacroiliac area (the joint that attaches the pelvis to the spine). The joint is deep inside so liniments may not reach it, but many herbs absorbed through the skin do have a systemic or deeper effect. Warming liniments are also useful after a hard workout to help relax the muscles and improve the circulation, much as humans enjoy a hot bath.

Cooling: Cooling liniments are indicated after damage and fresh inflammation, usually within the first few days to a week after an injury. If a hard work session generated inflammation or activated some injured areas, or if the weather is very hot, cooling liniments can prove beneficial.

DIY liniments and poultices: what you need to know

  • People often use rubbing alcohol as the base of a cooling liniment because it evaporates quickly, but it can also dry out the skin and irritate tender-skinned horses, especially if used regularly. If you have a sensitive-skinned horse, try vinegar, aloe, or make a tea (called an infusion).
  • Camphor is an excellent essential oil to help stimulate the circulatory system and decrease swelling. It also works as an antispasmodic and has antibacterial properties, among many other effects. Camphor is often added to liniments to help with penetration and for its cooling effects but sensitive-skinned horses may react to it. If you think you have a reactive horse, test a small area first. Be cautious when using it on body parts where the horse might rub and get it in his eye. It’s very painful and can damage the eye.
  • If you use laser or some form of light therapy as part of your routine, check with the company to be sure it’s safe to use over a liniment. In many cases, it’s best to use the machine before you apply a liniment. Many machines will not be able to work through a thick poultice.

Herbs for a liniment

Witch Hazel: Should be used in a quality extract, rather than the common version found in pharmacies; warming, relieves sore muscles, very commonly used as a liniment base, and is safe for the skin

Valerian: Relaxes muscles, warming, calming

Cinnamon: Warming, increases circulation

Cayenne pepper: Stimulating, relieves pain (note — can test positive in the show ring)

Ginger: Increases circulation

Arnica: Warming, known for its use topically for sore or overworked muscles, as well as bruising


A poultice is a thick preparation applied topically to the skin. Common poultices are made from a clay base (mixed with essential oils, herbs or other compounds).

Poultices are usually applied to the lower legs to decrease inflammation and swelling, or to draw out infection. For the back, poultices can be made from plant material steeped in hot water, and applied to the body.

Fresh or dried herbs are crushed, pressed or soaked until they form a paste. More commonly used on the legs, they are a little more challenging to use on the back since you’ll need to bandage it to keep it in place. If left uncovered, the horse may roll and remove it. If you do use a poultice on your horse’s back, wash it thoroughly before riding. Leftover ingredients can be irritating under a saddle.

Herbs for a poultice

Plantain: Grows in most pastures, is soothing and cooling to the skin, helps drain the lymphatic system

Dandelion leaves: Anti-inflammatory, helps relieve arthritic symptoms

Burdock root: Anti-inflammatory, cool, moistening

Calendula flowers: Neutral to a bit warm, excellent for skin lesions and rain rot

Chickweed roots and stems: Anti-inflammatory, soothes dry skin

Comfrey leaves: Easy to grow and you can use the whole leaf mashed up; treats injuries, broken bones (it’s also known as “knit-bone”), skin lesions, arthritis discomfort, and bruises

Essential oils for liniments and poultices

Essential oils are the concentrated extracts of herbs. They can be added to a formula in small amounts, or the formula can be based entirely around them. Learn about using essential oils before applying them to your horse’s back. They are wonderfully powerful, but can be irritating. If your horse has sensitive skin, start with a small area when using essential oil-based products. Popular choices include:

Copaiba: Anti-inflammatory, mild and soothing

Lavender: Relaxes muscles, decreases stress, and soothes skin irritations

Peppermint: Cooling and refreshing

Basil: Relaxes sore muscles

Herbal liniments and poultices offer a natural and inexpensive alternative to harsh and ineffective commercial products. You can choose specific herbs and essential oils based on your horse’s needs and create a custom compound that’s sure to soothe and heal.

Learn to make your own liniment

  1. Making herbal liniments (Mountain Rose Herbs)
  2. Step-by-step recipe and instructions for making Kloss’s Liniment