Equine Self-Medication

Les Rees

I think there is little doubt that animals self-medicate, anyone who has a dog or cat will have witnessed them eating grass to make them regurgitate. There is also plenty of evidence of animals self-medicating dating back to ancient civilizations as scholars wrote about their observations and experimented with those herbs selected by animals to cure ailments common to animals and humans. This led to the development of herbal medicine as information was exchanged and experimentation led the way to an understanding of the effects of a significant array of herbal plants and their medicinal properties.

Until recently, the scientific fraternity has been unwilling to accept that animals self-medicate. However, there has been a lot of interest building through the observations of eminent animal behaviourists like Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall, who have witnessed sick animals seeking and eating specific plants not normally part of their diet, resulting in the relief of the symptoms of obvious health disorders. Today there is a vast amount of information available through the efforts of dedicated zoologists, pharmacologists and herbalists who have examined the medicinal properties of the herbs and their actions on the body.

Studies suggest that horses in the wild not only have the appearance of looking healthy, but when tested, showed little signs of parasite infestations or worm burdens. Moreover, they had resistance to diseases normally found to affect their domestic counterparts which is hardly surprising given that these horses don't have access to the medicinal herbs that their wild counterparts have as they can graze freely, continually moving onto new ground. Wild horses often eat plants known to be quite toxic but which eaten in small quantities at any one time, act as medicines triggering specific systems within the body to work more efficiently and subsequently re-balancing them so that normal health can be restored.

Some examples of domestic horses self-medicating can be seen when horses pick at rose hips and nettles, or dig at the ground for clay. The rosehips have high quantities of vitamin C, iron, copper and biotin. They are an excellent blood cleanser, good for the kidneys, liver and adrenal glands as well as being an immune stimulant. Nettles are also high in iron and are very effective as an arterial tonic and in blood oxygenation. Clay is an inert substance, however, it does bind toxins enabling them to be evacuated from the body and it also protects the lining of the gut having an ant-acid effect, absorbing excess fluids and subsequently curbing diarrhoea.

In an ideal world the horse owner would incorporate herbal lays in areas protected by larger plants that provide shade and nutrients in order for their horses to be able to self-medicate but that is a big ask as it involves financial outlay that a lot of horse owners can ill afford.

I've been an Equine Naturopath for many years and even after all this time, I'm still amazed at how well horses respond to herbal medicine. Many people say that their horses are fussy and won't eat anything with medications included in their normal feed, but if I'd had a dollar bet for every one of those horses having the opposite response, I'd be a rich woman! I'm sure that they have the ability to recognise that the nutrients are beneficial to them.

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