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Equine Health and Herbs

By Dan Houdeshell CVCP
Copyright ©2005 - 2011 Sierra Gold® Nutrition

Nutrient or Drug?

Take the drug Valium for instance. While often confused with the herb that bares a similar sounding name, the two are different and yet similar in function. Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis) actually has a weak binding of the same receptors in the brain that the group of drugs known as benzodiazepines bind. It is important to note that the active compounds in Valerian act weakly when binding benzodiazepine reports compared to drugs like Valium and Xanax. While this action helps explain Valerian's ability to act as a sedative, it is not associated with the dependence and potential addiction common with the above-mentioned drugs.

Valium is not related in any way to the herb Valerian. Although the names sound similar and both are used in the treatment of insomnia and anxiety, the association ends there. Valerian is free of the side effects the prescription drug Valium often has. However, some States such as Texas prohibit administering Valerian Root to horses the same way that they would regulate a drug.

White Willow Bark is another herb commonly used on horses. White Willow Bark’s (aspirin) history dates back to the 5th century BC, when the Greek physician Hippocrates used an extract of White Willow Bark, containing a natural aspirin-like chemical for pain relief and fever reduction.

It is used today to break fevers, and reduce pain and swelling in arthritic joints. White Willow Bark is also beneficial for infections. It is used in indigestion connected with the debility of the digestive organs. In convalescence from acute diseases, in worms, chronic diarrhea and dysentery, its tonic and astringent combination renders it very useful! As an astringent, it has also been recommended for internal bleeding and as a diuretic for gouty and rheumatic problems.

White Willow Bark is also very useful in acute phases and for muscle pains. Some reports also hint that White Willow Bark reduces blood sugar level and inhibits the production of prostaglandins, which cause cramping in females. This will also aid in the very senior horse which can develope a Cushing-like disease that manifests high blood sugar levels, pancreatic dysfunction, especially at the ilse of lagerhans which produces insulin. It also manifests as wooly coat and lethargy.

In many studies performed in Denmark, this herb has been used with thermogenic herbs like ephedra to document the effectiveness in weight loss. This aspirin and aspirin-like compound, containing herb has been extensively studied and has established its anti-Inflammatory and immune-boosting bioactivities

Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), a synthetic replacement for salicin, is not a blood "thinner" but it in fact reacts within the eight consecutive pyramid stages of creating blood platelets which has been used to prevent blood clots. However, it has potentially dangerous gastrointestinal side-effects. In its natural form, salicin passes harmlessly through the gastrointestinal tract, becoming saligenin and glucose. The saligenin is then converted to salicylic acid in the blood and the liver. The conversion process takes a few hours, so results will not be felt immediately, but are usually sustained for several hours. Salicin is helpful for mild feverish colds and infections (Influenza), acute and chronic rheumatic disorders, and pain caused by inflammation. But it does not have the dangerous side-effects associated with aspirin.

So what’s the point?

The point we are making is that herbs are not nutrients. Like drugs, herbs contain chemical substances that help the body by acting as catalysts, inducing functions of different organs and aiding in the eliminating toxins from the body. They do not however contain the nutrients required to maintain good health. While herbs do contain some of the minerals and trace elements needed, they are usually only present in very small quantities. Not nearly enough to supply the needs of the performance horse.

This does not mean that herbs are not valuable in treating an animal that is ill or injured. But, to keep him healthy on a daily basis and reduce the need for such treatments, we have to supplement the building blocks that his body needs to stay healthy.

The horse’s body needs vitamins, minerals and trace elements to continue living and remain healthy. These nutrients come from the feed and mostly from the forage in the case of horses. The only way to properly supplement what is lacking in the forage is to add the nutrients from sources that the horse can easily digest and metabolize. When these are fed regularly there is far less need to treat the horse for anything.

Masking the problem

In today’s competitive world there is a constant drive to ‘win at all cost’. It is a lot easier to put a ‘band-aid’ on a problem or ‘juice’ a horse into performing well rather than take the time needed to correct the problem properly. Take for instance the usage of sedative derivatives such as Quiet-tex, and others like it in the show ring to produce a controlled horse, but with good & fast responses? In the Peruvian Paso competitions, judges look for a high energy horse, but remains collected at all times (this is called Brio). This is the result of good training rather than ‘good drugs’. Accomplishing this trough the use of drugs or herbs rather than training is underhanded and dishonest. Masking the problem with drugs (or herbs that perform the same function) is reprehensible from any standpoint.

Society holds in derision trainers and coaches that pump steroids and drugs into human athletes just to win. The same it true for horse owners and trainers. If you are only as good as the ‘needle’, do the right thing and get out of the business. As drug testing becomes mandatory in more events across the country your time is limited, and nobody is gong to miss you

To all of the real horsemen out there that train and compete drug free, good health and happiness to you and your equine athletes and many, many happy trails.


Herb Research Foundation 1983

Supplements and Nutraceuticals for Horses - Kellon - 1998

Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable - de Bairacli Levy - 1991

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