Herbal Alternatives to Equine Drugs
I’d like to preface this post by saying I am not a 100% herbal or natural remedy person (with myself or my animals). Of course, I prefer to use herbs over drugs, but if I feel a drug or more traditional means of treatment is needed, then that’s what I’ll go with. With that said, for managing chronic conditions, I tend to go the natural route every time.
Sometimes I hesitate to write about certain topics because I don’t want people to A.) assume I’m an expert in said topic, and/or B.) take my advice over their veterinarian’s. Though I’ve learned quite a bit over the years, I am not an expert on all things horse, so please do what you truly believe is best for your horse, and involve your veterinarian or another professional when you feel it is warranted.
However, if you’re looking for herbal alternatives to use instead of drugs or even in conjunction with a drug (so long as they can be used together), here are a few that have worked for me OR that I’ve researched because they have been helpful for others.
Chaste Tree Berry (instead of pergolide)
Chaste tree berry (vitex agnes-castus) has long been used by women to help with menstrual cycle irregularities, PMS, acne, menopause, and infertility, among other things and has become a popular herb to feed horses with Cushing’s disease or other conditions affecting the pituitary gland. Before she passed, I successfully used chaste tree berry powder for several years with our old mare, Katy, who showed signs of Cushing’s (you can read more about that here). I’ve also begun using it just this year with Hershey for the same reason.
Chaste tree berry has been found to be safe for long term use, but avoid feeding it to pregnant mares. For a full sized horse, most people feed approximately 1-2 teaspoons twice per day. With many herbs, including this one, it’s good to have an off day or week. For example, you can feed for 6 days, lay off for one day. Or you can feed for 3 weeks, and lay off for one week.
Jiaogulan (instead of anti-inflammatory drugs)
This is a Chinese herb I successfully used when Lee Lee tore a suspensory ligament about ten years ago (you can read more about that experience here). Jiaogulan is considered adaptogenic–an herb that can improve the body’s ability to deal with stress by regulating cortisol. This herb can be helpful for a number of conditions, but because it increases blood flow, it appears to speed healing and decrease pain with certain conditions such as ligament or tendon injuries and even laminitis.
An approximate dosage is around 1/2 to 2 tsp per day for a 1000 lb horse, but you may need to adjust the amount depending on your horse’s response to jiaogulan. Ideally, it should be given twice a day (dividing the dosage), twenty minutes before a meal.
Devil’s Claw (instead of bute)
Devil’s Claw contains high concentrations of a chemical called harpogoside which is a natural anti-inflammatory. This herb also has analgesic (painkilling) properties and contains several antioxidants which can speed healing. Though there has been some concern that Devil’s Claw may be irritating for horses already dealing with ulcers, a recent study showed that the herb is rapidly absorbed in the bloodstream and caused no clinically detectable GI irritation.
Arnica (instead of bute or other NSAID’s)
With its ability to disperse trapped fluids from bruised tissue and stimulate white blood cells, arnica can be used topically to relieve the pain and inflammation of soft-tissue injuries. However, you should avoid using it on open wounds. This homeopathic remedy can also be given orally and is particularly useful for joint, muscle and rheumatic pain. When given or applied before athletic events, Arnica has also been found to prevent muscle stiffness and reduce pain.
When administering Arnica orally after an injury, dose as often as every 15 minutes with 5-10 small pills either directly in the horse’s mouth or dissolved in water until a positive response is witnessed. Continue dosing twice daily for up to seven days or until bruising or lameness improves.
Slippery Elm or Marshmallow (instead of Omeprazole)
Slippery Elm and Marshmallow are both mucilaginous herbs which can soothe irritated or inflamed membranes of the digestive tract, including ulcers. Feeding one of these herbs can also work as a colic preventative, helping to produce regular bowel movements, working as an antacid, and restoring bacterial balance in the gut.
For best results, combine 2 ounces of Allow Vera juice (or chamomile tea) with 2 teaspoons of Slippery Elm or Marshmallow. Give this mixture 2-3 times daily, either in feed or syringed into the horse’s mouth. Both Slippery Elm and Marshmallow can be fed long term without complications.
Red Raspberry Leaf (Instead of hormone regulating drugs)
This herb is beneficial in controlling mare “moodiness” often caused by hormonal fluctuations. Containing significant amounts of immune-boosting antioxidants, raspberry leaves can act as an anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, and blood sugar regulator as well. Unlike many herbs, red raspberry leaf is typically safe to feed to pregnant mares, and can be especially helpful during the third trimester as it aids in strengthening uterine muscles before and after delivery, plus stimulates milk production.
The leaves can be fed dry or as an infused tea. With the dried leaves, feed approximately 3 tsp a day for a 1000 lb horse. This amount can be adjusted as needed though.
Valerian (instead of Acepromazine)
Valerian is a well-known herb with a calming effect on the brain. While it should never be used on a consistent or long-term basis, Valerian can be helpful for anxiousness or aggressiveness during breeding season, nervous haulers, or training especially anxious horses (though I’d definitely recommend trying to find the root cause of this anxiety first). Because Valerian is so effective, it’s been banned by many equine regulatory bodies, so always check with your organization if planning to use before competition.
Just a heads up on Valerian: Though rare, some horses can develop an allergy to it. You can read more about that here. Valerian may also enhance the effect of synthetic sedatives or tranquilizers so don’t use before dental work or other procedures which may necessitate the use of those sedatives.