by Sara Stewart Martinelli
I know a lot of people, (and I must admit, I do it too!) who spend a lot of money on supplements for their horses. There are supplements for digestion, joint health, hormonal balance, and just about any other health issue you can think of.
But why do modern, domestic horses need so much diet supplementation? Today’s horses often live in conditions that are far different from their natural existence. We keep them confined in stalls, and even if we are fortunate enough to have good pasture space on which to turn them out, they are still restricted to the grasses and plants in that pasture, and are not able to forage the wide variety of plants that they would encounter in the wild. Eating patterns and exercise patterns are different as well. Instead of being able to graze all day, we often feed our horses individual meals of hay and grain. This isn’t the ideal pattern for the digestive system of the horse, whose body is naturally designed to be eating small amounts almost continuously. Additionally, we often ask our horses to perform competitively or with periods of extended energy output. Horse nutrition is, of course, an in depth concept and many of us rely upon the experts to tell us what it’s best to feed our horse. That makes it easy to find legitimate reasons why our horses need additional supplements for optimal health.
But what can we do to provide some natural supplementation, at a reasonable cost, with both safe and reliable results?
Here are five herbs that are easy to find, inexpensive, and safe to feed your horse. Remember, any time you add something new to your horses diet you need to do it slowly over time to allow his digestive system to adjust to the new foods. Although these are all botanicals that are considered very safe, do watch to ensure that your horse does not have a unique reaction to any of them. In order for herbs to be of therapeutic benefit, they need time to work. Expect to use the herbal supplement regimen for at least a month to six weeks in order to see benefits.
Herbs can be added to the diet in a number of ways. The two easiest are feeding fresh herbs that you grow or find yourself, or using dried herbs. The most beneficial thing about using the fresh plants is that your horse will most likely love them; the herbs below are all considered very palatable. The downside to fresh plants is that it’s dependent on seasonality, locality, and availability, and can be difficult to get a large enough quantity to be an actual supplemental amount. So, in order to create a consistent, therapeutic dosage level, it’s easiest to use dried herbs.
Mix the herbs with a little water and allow them to soak for about 5 minutes, and then add the resulting liquid mash to your horse’s grain ration. Beet pulp is my personal favorite “blender” for the herbs, because I’ve already soaked the beet pulp before serving so the herbs are easily incorporated. If you are not familiar with beet pulp, carefully follow the instructions of the bag and be sure to soak the beet pulp for the recommended amount of time.
Nettles – Urtica dioca – One of my favorite herbs, nettles are one of nature’s richest sources of iron, which can often be a mineral lacking in an equine diet. Nettles also contain histamine, serotonin, potassium, silica, vitamins A and C, and a whole host of other minerals. It’s one of the most widely useful plants that we know of, and it strengthens and supports the whole body. Nettles support the immune, respiratory, urinary and reproductive systems, and can help the body fight allergic responses. Additionally, nettles will strengthen hoof and coat health. You can add about a half a cup of nettles to the feed ration daily. If you choose to feed fresh herbs, allow them to wither in the sun for at least four hours to remove the sting, or pour boiling water over them first and allow them to cool.
Fenugreek – Trigonella foenum-graecum – I love adding fenugreek to my equine blends because horses usually love the flavor. These hard little seeds function to strengthen the respiratory system, the mucus membranes, and the sinus in cases of upper respiratory infection, sinus issues, or congestion. Fenugreek also has strong properties of regulating and stimulating the lymphatic system. By helping to move lymph through the body, it can be helpful when treating anhydrosis (the ‘puffs’), or any condition where there is stuck lymph. Add about 2 tablespoons of the little seeds a day to your horse’s diet.
Dandelion Leaf – Taraxacum officinale– This humble herb is an excellent addition to a horse’s diet. High in vitamins A, B, C, and D, and rich in potassium, sodium, calcium and other minerals, dandelion functions as tonic by stimulating liver function, bile production, and kidney function. It helps the body clear itself of toxins and is believed to purify the blood. It’s a strong botanical ally when used in rehabilitation or conditioning mixes, especially for horses that undergo the stress of competition. I love dandelion so much that I actually scattered seeds around my farm in areas that I hand graze the horses. When you see how much the horses will gravitate to the dandelion, it’s obvious that they both love, and need it’s gently balancing medicine. I also add dried dandelion leaf to spring blends as we ramp up the horses’ training schedules for the competition season. You can add a cup of dried dandelion leaf to your horse’s ration, or, like I do, feed them fresh whenever you find it. Be careful, however, that if you are harvesting dandelions for your horse that there is not any kind of chemical treatment used on the area from which you are harvesting.
Raspberry Leaf – Rubus idaeus– the leaves of the common raspberry plant have been used for centuries as strong female tonic. They can help strengthen and tone the uterus to aid in fertility, pregnancy, and foaling. Raspberry also helps to regulate the hormonal swings in a moody mare, and in fact, one popular Mare supplement on the market is pure Raspberry leaf. In addition to its strong uterine benefits, raspberry leaf is a good astringent herb, and can be used effectively in cases of diarrhea, wet cough, bleeding gums, or any condition that is “loose”. Give about a half cup of the dried leaf to your mare a day.
Chamomile – Matricaria chamomilla – These little flowers pack a whole lot of medicine into their delicious little blossoms. High in phosphorus and calcium, they strengthen and regulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Chamomile is one of nature’s most gentle sedatives, and it can be used in all cases of anxiety, sleep issues, and hyperactivity. Additionally, it is often used to treat allergic reactions, both externally and internally, and I’ve had great success using it to treat hives. Chamomile also supports the digestive system as a carminative, and is included in many of my anti-inflammatory blends. Its general health promoting properties make it an excellent addition to a daily herbal supplement and its best given about ¼ cup at a time mixed with a little water.
Where to get them? My favorite place is Mountain Rose Herbs.