Horses react with allergies to many of the same irritants we do. Fortunately, there are a number of natural ways to defend against them!
Allergies are a nuisance. Allergies are persistent. Allergies can’t be cured. So, what can we do about them when they afflict our horses? Read on to gain a better understanding of what allergies are, as well as a few natural solutions that may help ease the symptoms your horse is experiencing.
What are allergies?
Allergies are created by a substance that the body’s immune system detects incorrectly as a threat. It mounts a substantial attack on that threat, while producing lots of antibodies and releasing histamines and other substances. The attack is designed to help the body protect itself; however, because the allergen isn’t a true threat, the attack tends to cause more harm than good.
What causes allergies in horses?
In horses, allergies are most commonly caused by:
Insect bites/saliva: The most common insect-driven allergies come from the saliva of Culicoides midges (sweet itch, summer itch, summer eczema). Other flies can sometimes create a similar reaction in horses, causing severe itching and hair loss, and sometimes a crusty oozing rash that results in secondary bacterial infections and other complications.
Airborne irritants like pollen, mold, dust: Symptoms are very similar to human asthma – difficulty breathing, nasal discharge, coughing, lung sounds, elevated heart rate, and even weight loss. This reaction is commonly called heaves, or Recurrent Airway Obstruction (formerly Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
Topicals and physical materials: Sometimes horses will develop hives in reaction to a particular material in a saddle pad or blanket, or to topical products like fly sprays, shampoos, and detanglers. Other potentially irritating items can include bedding and plants. Symptoms may include hives, itching, inflammation, and crusty skin.
Food and medications: Horses are sometimes allergic to legumes such as alfalfa, beet pulp, buckwheat, oats and several other foods. This can show up as digestive upset, hives, or dermatitis.
As far as allergies go, the old saying is true; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can do anything and everything you can to help your horse avoid exposure to irritants, you’ll have a better chance at preventing reactions. Of course, the challenge is identifying the allergens. There are several options for testing; discuss with your veterinarian what the best options are in your area.
Some solutions for preventing allergic reactions include using fly sheets and other fly covers, topical salves to protect from insect bites, wetting down hay and living areas to reduce dust and mold spores, and removing certain feeds/medications from the equine diet.
Not so fast
While that all sounds fine and dandy, the reality is that we can’t enclose our horses in bubble wrap; there’s no way to keep them 100% protected from insects, dust, mold, pollen, etc. So what to do? Are steroids and antihistamines our only option?
Several natural supplementation options are available to horse caretakers to help manage and reduce allergy symptoms. Recall that allergic reactions are marked by an over-responsive immune system and inflammation, so unsurprisingly, treatments generally fall into those two categories.
Reducing inflammation will help tremendously with calming down the body’s allergic reaction and symptoms, including skin and lung irritation. Potent, natural anti-inflammatories include:
a) Omega-3s: Foods high in Omega-3s have been shown in clinical studies to reduce inflammation. Ground flax seed, flax seed oil, and camelina oil are good options for your horse. While clinical trials focused on the use of ground flax seed, flax’s cousin, the camelina plant, has an even higher dosage of Omega-3d per serving, plus naturally-occurring vitamin E which makes the product easier to administer and more shelf-stable. Either add ground flax to your horse’s bucket or drizzle some flax and/or camelina oil on top of his feed. Most horses enjoy the taste.
b) MSM: A common nutraceutical used in joint supplements, MSM has been shown to be a very effective anti-inflammatory. MSM’s anti-inflammatory properties will block histamine receptivity in affected tissues, thereby reducing symptoms. MSM is commonly sold in feed supply stores; you can top-dress your horse’s feed with the powder.
2. Immune defense
Since allergies are the result of an over-reactive immune system, strengthening this system so it can better identify what is a true threat is a good idea.
a) Adaptogenic herbs: Adaptogenic herbs and substances include spirulina, ginseng and turmeric. These herbs are rich in minerals and vitamins and also have very strong anti-inflammatory properties. Moreover, adaptogenic herbs can reverse the body’s reaction to stress (which is a powerful immunosuppressant), allowing the body to function longer and healthier. Feeding these herbs to your horse will help strengthen his overall immune system so it can avoid overreacting to irritants. You can often find these herbs in powdered form and can feed them alongside other supplements.
b) Stinging nettles. Nettles are immune-supporting, as they target the health of the kidneys, which work to flush toxins from the body. Nettles also have some natural antihistamine compounds, which can provide additional relief from allergy symptoms. Horses generally enjoy the taste of dried nettle; you can chop down a good quantity of nettle, let it wilt for at least four hours, and then feed it alongside hay.
c) Probiotics and prebiotics. The horse’s digestive system includes tissue function that drives much of his immune response. The healthier a horse’s digestive tract is, the less likely the immune system is to turn on itself. Probiotics are beneficial strains of bacteria in the digestive tract that reduce the presence of harmful bacteria and bolster the immune system. However, in order for them to stay alive, they need enzymes – otherwise known as prebiotics – as food. Once you have bolstered your horse’s digestive system with probiotics, switch to a good source of prebiotics to keep his gut health flourishing. There are many good products on the market for horses – top dress his feed with these supplements to help ameliorate symptoms.
Your best line of defense against any irritant is always to avoid it. But if this can’t be done, these natural remedies will help your horse get through his seasonal allergies!