Designing the right herbal pasture will give your horse access to better nutrition and healthy treats, helping him to become a calmer, happier horse.
Throughout equine history, horses were free to roam large areas of land. Using their acute sense of taste and smell, they could intuitively pick and choose which plants were safe to eat, and which would treat their aches and ailments. In other words, most equine environments consisted of a naturally-occurring herbal pasture.
Over the last century, however, things began to change. Open land was condensed into pastures and paddocks. Eventually, manicured grass won out over untamed fields, and the horse’s access to natural forage dwindled. Most horses no longer have the opportunity to find the herbs they need and desire. Yet, if you provide them with an herbal pasture, they will feed themselves appropriately.
Our 37-year-old horse suffered from the creaky, aching joints of old age. On his worst days, he would often seek out fresh willow in his pasture. His younger companion never did – until one day he stepped on a large barn nail in the pasture. For the next week he stripped bark off the young willow saplings with uncharacteristic zeal. As he healed, he ate less and less willow; when he was better, he stopped eating it altogether. White willow (Salix alba) contains glucoside salicin, which becomes salicylic acid, and is the one of the original sources of aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid. In fact, modern aspirin was developed from willow and meadowsweet and unlike most pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories, willow is a very effective anti-inflammatory that is gentle on the digestive system.
Planting your own pasture
A herbal pasture will not only increase your horse’s ability to condition and treat himself, but will also bring more color and excitement to the senses. Herbs crushed underfoot when walking and riding will provide you and your horse with gentle aromatherapy treatments. Herbs in flower are good for the ecosystem, supporting local honeybee and bird populations, as well as providing a feast for the eyes. Our own pasture is naturally populated with red and white clover, white willow, cleavers, dandelion, plantain, spearmint and Jerusalem artichoke.
Think of your pasture as an empty canvas. Before you start to “paint”, you need to become familiar with its particular ecosystem. Many pastures are tiny microcosms of the world, with multiple growing environments: you may have a drier, warmer area that is good for drought-tolerant herbs such as sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), while the edge of a stream or small watering hole can be used for planting marshmallow (Althea officinalis) and horsetail (Equisetum arvense). Although herbs may prefer certain conditions, they will tolerate most habitats. They are resilient, strengthening plants, and in turn lend their strength to our horses and ourselves. Some herbs require no work at all and are considered “weeds” because of their tenacious growing ability and persistent presence in gardens and lawns.
In addition to understanding the ecosystem of your field to create your herbal pasture, you also need to find out what gardening zone you live in. All plants and seeds are sold by zone hardiness; if a plant is hardy in your zone it will survive local winter temperatures. To find your zone, ask your local plant nursery or buy a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac, which is packed with useful planting information.
Once you have a good understanding of your climate and your pasture’s unique qualities, you can start planning and planting your herbal pasture.
The medicinal properties of herbs
Let’s start with some of the basic, most prolific herbs (some call them weeds) that you can easily plant or transplant to create the best herbal pasture for your horse. Some of these may even already be growing in your fields:
• Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – it’s simply one of the best herbs for horses. It’s a powerful detoxifier, primarily used to treat problems arising in the digestive system. A potent tonic, dandelion will detoxify the blood and liver as well as cleanse the entire digestive tract. Since arthritis and rheumatism in horses often stems from improper digestion, dandelion is a natural remedy for all such ailments. Its Latin name actually means “official cure of disorders.”
• Clover (Trifolium pretense) – a wonderful addition to any herbal pasture – your horses will adore it. Both red and white clover are medicinal; in my practice, I tend to use red clover, which is more readily available and improves soil quality by fixing nitrogen in the soil. If you seed a mixture of varieties in your pasture, you will soon see a calmer, gentler side of your horse. Red clover is an antioxidant, and helps your horse assimilate iron while supplying vitamin C, protein and calcium. It is also a mild phytoestrogen, and can be used to treat hormonal imbalances. In small, regular doses, red clover will have a calming effect, and can even be given to young horses. As an added bonus, the National Cancer Institute has confirmed red clover’s efficacy as an anti-cancer treatment.
• Mullein (Verbascum blattari) – a wonderful respiratory herb that grows naturally in many pastures and waste areas. If it doesn’t grow in your herbal pasture, you should consider planting it. Mullein is an invaluable treatment for seasonal allergies and chronic coughs, soothing the lungs and helping to expel mucus. For a well rounded respiratory treatment, combine mullein with stinging nettle or thyme.
• Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) – a self-sowing perennial flower that grows happily in all climates, especially those with warm, dry soils. Many of us are familiar with chamomile as a calming night-time tea; in addition to its calming properties, it is a general anti-inflammatory and soothes the digestive tract. The flowers are a horse favorite.
• Cleavers – there are many different varieties that thrive throughout North America. In the East, it’s Galium aparine, and in the West, Galium orizabense. Its small white flowers are not noticeable enough to be considered ornamental, and though its leaves are delicate and quite pretty, most consider it nothing more than a weed, prevalent along fence lines and roads. Luckily for us, cleavers persists, offering a strong lymph detoxifier and a simple remedy for urinary and bowel irregularities. Recent studies have shown that cleavers is a mild anti-inflammatory with antitumor properties, and that it can effectively lower blood pressure. With “weeds” like cleavers in your pasture, your horse can effectively soothe many of its own discomforts.
Feeding dried herbs
Not all herbs are tasty to your horse in their raw, living state. Some need to be dried before their pungent aromas or bitter flavors become palatable. To create tasty stands of dried herbs for your horse to forage among during the winter months, sow the following in small areas of the pasture that you can leave un-mowed:
• Stinging nettle (Urtica diotica) is an important source of iron, calcium, vitamin K, and countless other vitamins. This folk remedy for arthritis is highly anti-inflammatory and clears out respiratory congestion.
• Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is both calming and invigorating. It rejuvenates the system while taking the edge off stress and nervousness. This herb is a winter must-have for colic-prone horses, because it helps normalize digestion.
• Sage is anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, and encourages healthy coats.
• Yarrow (Achillea millefollium) leaves (fresh) can be used as a poultice on wounds to stop bleeding quickly and effectively; ingested, they will help stop internal bleeding. Horses love the taste of dried yarrow flowers and leaves, which are a general tonic and a boon to the immune system.
• Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a strong anti-inflammatory that can clear out head colds and stop aches and pains in their tracks. Use it to keep fungal and parasitic infections at bay.
Herbs tend to grow quickly so soon after you sow, your horse will have a well-rounded pharmacopoeia literally at his feet. With the right herbal pasture, he’ll have access to better nutrition and healthy treats, and will become a calmer, happier horse.
Maya Cointreau is an herbalist, shamanic energy healer and Reiki master. She co-founded and runs Earth Lodge Herbals (www.earthlodgeherbals.com), a company that formulates herbal remedies for animals, as well as Hyge ia, a Holistic Health & Metaphysical Store (www.hygeiaonline.com) in New Milford, Connec ticut. She has written two books on healing and spirituality: Equine Herbs & Healing: An Earth Lodge Guide to Horse Wellness and To the Temples: 14 Meditations for Healing & Guidance. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.