Learn about herbal medicine and which herbs can help your horse with several common respiratory problems.
The competition season is already in full swing. But it’s not too late to make sure your horse’s respiratory system is in the best possible condition, and ready to deal with the airborne particles, irritants, allergens, viral and bacterial infections he’ll be exposed to as the season progresses. Herbal medicine can be an invaluable tool to help protect his health.
A horse’s airways are protected from inflammation and infection by a mucous membrane lining that contains a constantly moving escalator of tiny hairs (cilia). The cilia vibrate and carry any irritants, allergens or excess mucus up and out of the horse’s airways. When a horse is asked to exert himself, the airflow through the nasal cavities increases tenfold and the nostrils flare to accommodate the increased intake of oxygen. As a result, he also inhales more airborne particles, irritants, viruses or bacteria, and can consequently suffer from a variety of respiratory-related conditions, many of which respond well to herbal medicine. In fact, herbs can be used in either a preventative or curative capacity.
This article covers a few of the more common equine respiratory problems, along with suggestions for appropriate herbal treatment. As a general comment, keep in mind that many of the herbs listed below offer an “expectorant” action that results in the loosening and liquefaction of sticky mucus in the airways, encouraging its expulsion from the body. So don’t be alarmed if you start to see more “ rubbish” coming out of your horse’s nose – this is definitely a case of “better out than in”!
1. Epistaxis – “Bleeding”
This can be caused by trauma to the head, a guttural pouch infection, or the presence of polyps or tumors. Many of these conditions can benefit from herbs, but I will concentrate on the most common cause of “bleeding” in horses when competing – EIPH (Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage). The cause of the “bleed” in this condition is not fully understood, but it is generally accepted that infection, allergies or inflammation will result in a reduction in the size of the lung’s airways, an increase in blood pressure, and subsequent hemorrhage. It is therefore vital to ensure your horse is as fit as possible and that his airways are free from the infection or inflammation that may develop in response to allergens.
Note: Once a horse has “bled”, he will be reluctant to exert himself again (bleeding is an extremely unpleasant experience for a horse, and involves swallowing blood or choking). In addition, the already weakened blood vessels are far more likely to hemorrhage again when put under pressure. A number of herbs contain constituents that help strengthen previously weakened blood vessels while making sure the capillary walls remain flexible and elastic.
Echinacea – Echinacea purpurea
Parts used: Root, aerial parts.
I always recommend using the root rather than the aerial parts of the plant; it may cost more but it is worth the extra money as the root contains the highest concentrations of active constituents (Echinacosides). Echinacea is specific for the upper respiratory system, providing antiviral, antibacterial, immune-stimulant and anti-inflammatory actions. Using Echinacea will help ensure a horse’s immune response is in the best possible condition to resist bacterial or viral infection.
Buckwheat – Fagopyrum esculentum
Parts used: Flowers and Leaves
Buckwheat is rich in rutin (also known as vitamin P), which prevents hemorrhage by strengthening the walls of blood vessels and improving the flexibility of the capillary walls. In the past, American soldiers exposed to radiation poisoning were given buckwheat to help strengthen and heal their weakened blood vessels.
Yarrow – Achillea millefolium
Parts used: Flowering herb
Named after Achilles, who was reported to have used it to staunch his soldiers’ wounds, yarrow is a fantastic anti-inflammatory and circulatory stimulant. Not only will it stop bleeding, but it can also improve overall circulation and blood supply to the peripheral vessels.
Dog rose – Rosa canina
Parts used: Fruits (hips)
This is a great antioxidant, supplying up to 6,000 mg of vitamin C per kilogram, and containing flavonoids and tannins that strengthen weakened or damaged blood vessels.
Hawthorn – Cratageus oxycanthoides
Parts used: Berries and flowering tops
It is interesting that both the herb and the homeopathic remedy Cratageus are recommended for “bleeders”. In trials on healthy humans, it was shown that hawthorn improved on the heart’s output, reducing hypertension by dilating the peripheral blood vessels without putting any additional strain on the heart. Hawthorn also contains rutin (like buckwheat), which has been shown to help repair and strengthen damaged blood vessels.
2. RAO – Recurrent Airway Obstruction (heaves, COPD)
Recurrent Airway Obstruction is caused by an allergic reaction to common irritants or allergens such as hay, dusty bedding, mold or grass pollens, which then create inflammation of the small airways, bronchoconstriction, excessive mucus production, and possible infection. The condition leads to a reduction in performance, coughing, wheezing, a heave line, nasal discharge and difficulty breathing.
Prevention is obviously better than a cure and owners should review their horses’ management, reducing exposure to the allergens that cause the disease. If the horse must be stabled, then check that bedding is clean and dust-free and that hay is not dusty or moldy. Steaming or soaking the hay, or feeding haylage, will help, as will giving the horse as much access as possible to fresh air and pasture (unless of course his allergies are due to pollens or dust in the outdoor environment).
In the meantime, many herbs will help dilate constricted airways, reduce the inflammatory response to allergens, loosen or liquefy any mucus, encourage expulsion of the mucus and deal with any infection present.
Marshmallow – Althea Officinalis
Parts used: Leaf and root
The leaf is the best part of this plant for the respiratory system. It contains generous quantities of mucilage, which give the plant its demulcent qualities, helping to soothe inflamed, irritated airways, reduce allergic response and encourage the expulsion of mucus.
Liquorice – Glycyrhiza glabra
Parts used: Root
Liquorice offers many of the same actions as the pharmaceutical steroids often prescribed for RAO, without the attendant side effects. The plant is an anti-inflammatory, and with its demulcent and expectorant action will reduce allergic inflammatory responses, lessening mucus production while soothing inflamed and irritated mucus membranes and encouraging removal of irritants.
Garlic – Allium sativum
There has been a lot of debate about the use of garlic with horses, and this article is not the place to address that debate. Suffice it to say, I have been feeding garlic to my horses for the last 30 years with no ill effects. Why do you get garlic breath? Well, it’s because the garlic oil, which holds all the active ingredients with their antiseptic, antibiotic, expectorant and anti-viral actions, is expelled through the lungs. This means garlic is the supreme herb for cleansing and supporting the whole respiratory system, especially if infection is present.
3. Headshaking – Allergic Rhinitis – Trigeminal Neuralgia
These conditions have a number of aetiologies, but this article hasn’t the scope to go into all of them. I am going to focus on herbs that have been found to reduce the pain and inflammation these horses experience in their trigeminal nerves, along with herbs that reduce allergic reactions to various pollens and soothe the sinuses and upper respiratory tract.
Although research has suggested pharmaceutical “antihistamines” are ineffective on horses, my experience is that herbal remedies with an “antihistamine or anti-allergy” action can reduce the allergic response exhibited by these horses.
Nettle – Urtica Dioica
This herb is anti-allergic, rich in vitamin C, iron, sodium and chlorophyll.
Echinacea – Echinacea Purpurea
Specific for upper respiratory tract (URT) inflammation, infection and irritation, it works by supporting and strengthening the immune system, enabling it to respond to allergens.
Devil’s Claw – Harpogophytum Procumbens
Anti-inflammatory and pain-killing, devil’s claw is also specific for improving synaptic messages and reducing inflammation and pain in nerve endings.
Eyebright – Euphrasia Officinalis
Eyebright is anti-allergic, astringent, anti-catarrhal, anti-inflammatory, relieves congestion, and is specific for the sinuses or any infection and inflammation in the head.
Chamomile – Matricaria recutita
This herb is anti-allergic, sedative, anti-inflammatory and analgesic, is a nervine relaxant and used for the treatment of anaphylactic shock.
Skullcap – Scutellaria baicalensis
Anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory, this herb is also specific for reducing irritation and inflammation caused by airborne allergens.
Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the wonderful world of herbal medicine, along with some ideas on what to use to make sure your horse’s respiratory system is in the best of health this season.