Herbs and essential oils have many naturally-occurring properties that make them well-suited for addressing a range of skin conditions in horses.
It’s a pretty safe bet that people, and quite possibly equines, have been treating their skin problems with plants since long before recorded history. By experimenting with various plants in the environment, they located the ones that soothed, cooled, helped with healing, etc. With the explosion of interest in natural remedies in recent years, we have seen a leap in scientific investigations into how herbal skin remedies work for both us and our horses.
10 powerful plants with skin-healing properties
The use of aloe for skin problems dates back at least to the time of the ancient Egyptians. Aloe is used to treat wounds, burns, sunburns, insect bites and irritations of all sorts. Its proven effects include reducing pain and inflammation, reducing edema and preventing blister formation, decreasing scar formation, and increasing the rate of healing. Aloe also has some weak antimicrobial effects against Staph bacteria and skin fungi.
Calendula (marigold) flower extract and oil have a long traditional history of use in the same situations as aloe, although this herb has not been given as much formal study. Calendula is known to stimulate the division of skin cells when used in low concentrations. In one study, it also showed antioxidant effects and improved wound healing.
German Chamomile has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, and is also anti-allergic and anti-itch. It has some analgesic and antimicrobial action. At least 18 active chemicals have been identified in this herb. It also speeds healing.
Comfrey root contains allantoin. It is used as a compress or in a cream base to treat wounds, ulcers, burns and other skin irritations. It provides some antimicrobial action. Allantoin also increases the rate of healing.
Dandelion is a common weed that originated in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Its use dates back to the 10th and 11th century Arabians. Externally, it is an excellent antioxidant and is mildly astringent.
Echinacea has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. It also encourages healing.
Mullein is a widely distributed wildflower originating in Europe and temperate Asia. It is traditionally used both as an emollient and moisturizing agent, but is also mildly astringent.
Plantain or Plantago, a common broadleaf weed, contains high levels of allantoin. It is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and promotes healing.
Tea Tree oil
Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca) can reduce histamine release in type I allergic reactions, but is not otherwise anti-inflammatory. Its major benefit for skin disorders is its antimicrobial effects.
Yarrow is a flower in the daisy family and is ubiquitous throughout Europe. Externally, it is used to shrink swelling and is mildly astringent.
Essential oils also help
We don’t think of plants or flowers as being particularly oily, but even grass contains about 6% fat. The distinct aromas of herbs and spices usually originate in their oil fractions. Essential oils are extracted from leaves, flowers or woods. Many essential oils are antimicrobial, making them good topical disinfectants. In fact, a study published in October 2009 compared the effectiveness of essential oils with substances like iodine, chlorhexidine and peroxide. The goal was to see if the oils were effective against candida and drug-resistant bacterial strains found in hospitals. Thyme, lemon, lemongrass and cinnamon oil were all very highly effective. Eucalyptus, tea tree, lavender, grapefruit, clove bud, sandalwood, peppermint, kunzea and sage oils were also effective.
Choosing and using an herbal product
Herbal products may be used for a variety of equine and human skin conditions, from abrasions, rubs and minor wounds to insect irritations and infections. All products should be used according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. If an area is too dirty or crusted to be cleaned by water alone, take care to rinse thoroughly to remove all traces of soap.
Your choice of product depends to some degree on the extent of the issue. Problems covering a large area of the horse’s body are best addressed with liquids, possibly combined with a salve, cream or ointment with similar ingredients on the worst areas. Dermatitis along the belly or elsewhere related to insect bites will need a thicker product so you can effectively shield it from further bites.
For cleaned minor wounds and abrasions, stick with products that have low potential for irritation, and that stimulate healing. Look for ingredients such as aloe, comfrey, calendula and gentle essential oils like lavender.
For superficial bacterial or fungal infections, and wounds with surface infections, additional useful ingredients are mullein, yarrow and tea tree oil. These products also have a very nice skin conditioning effect.
Use with care
Botanically active chemicals offer many benefits for skin problems. However, just because they’re natural, it doesn’t mean they should be used indiscriminately. Because of the chemical complexity of plants, they all have the potential to trigger allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. Essential oils can also be very irritating or even toxic if not properly diluted. Allergic or contact dermatitis-type reactions usually do not appear until multiple applications have been used. However, cross-sensitivity to botanicals can occur — e.g. tea tree oil and lavender — which means previous use of a botanical product may have sensitized your horse, even if it contained different ingredients.
Proper storage and use
Natural products do not usually contain preservatives, which makes proper storage important. Oxidation is the reaction of a chemical with oxygen in the air, and this reaction is hastened by warm temperatures. Oxidized chemicals undergo a change in structure that can alter their effectiveness. In the case of essential oils, oxidation can make some more allergenic.
Products should be stored away from sunlight in cool temperatures, in lightproof containers with lids tightly on. Avoid contaminating creams or ointments by always using a clean wooden tongue depressor or piece of gauze to remove them from their containers.
Shelf life varies considerably for different ingredients, and starts from the date of manufacture. Lavender and citrus oils are particularly fragile. To be safe, discard all-natural products one year after purchase, or sooner if there has been any change in color, smell or texture. Unopened products stored properly are probably good for two years if in airtight containers.
In horses with sensitive skin, always test a product by applying it to the skin at the back of the pastern and waiting 24 hours before using it on the problem area.
Horses can be prone to a variety of skin injuries and conditions. Herbs and essential oils, properly chosen and used, can do an excellent job at soothing and healing the skin.