At Heart—Helping You Live Life to the Fullest

The Smell Test

Explore essential oils for horse and rider.
By Delores Kuhlwein

Lavender, peppermint, frankincense, tea tree and eucalyptus, oh my! Essential oils claim to offer all sorts of dreamy benefits for you and your Paint Horse, do they really pass “the smell test” in terms of actual, real-life results?

New Age or Old Hat?

While it might seem like essential oils arrived on the scene in recent years, plant-based remedies are nothing new. Aromatherapy has been used as a medicinal remedy for more than 6,000 years.

When pharmaceuticals came into play, people started moving away from using one of nature’s oldest medicines taken from the life blood of plants,” said APHA member Mary Anne Black of Jordan Valley, Oregon.

Mary Anne became an enthusiast of essential oils for horses after her mare was diagnosed with pigeon fever. Despite seeking treatment from multiple veterinarians, the lesions—some of which were the size of footballs—continued to spread and abscess. Mary Anne had previously experienced the benefits of using essential oils on herself—she found use of certain essential oils helped reduce pain following multiple hip surgeries; naturally, she wondered if they might help her mare, too.

“I decided to use my essential oils on my mare,” Mary Anne said; she began treating the horse’s lesions externally with an essential oil blend containing frankincense, melaleuca and oregano.She also gave the horse applesauce infused with a few drops of the same oil blend. “Within two weeks, the lesions were getting better; she was almost completely healed in four weeks.

A favorite alternative medicine for owners like Mary Anne, essential oils are also gaining favor with some veterinarians, who use them in concert with modern medicine to treat certain conditions in their practices.  One such vet, Janet Roark, D.V.M., of Austin, Texas, is known as“The Essential Oil Vet” as a result of her live videos, webinars, online education and Facebook posts on the topic. Like Mary Anne, Janet first used essential oils personally before expanding their application to equine cases, too.

“I became interested in essential oils to learn about natural alternatives in returning my own body to a healthy state,” Janet said. Almost immediately, after realizing the benefits of essential oils at the cellular level, I started using them in my practice, Hill Country Mobile Veterinary Service, to facilitate wellness. I am not a holistic veterinarian, but I’ve seen oils help restore health in many animals. Why wouldn’t a vet want to have another tool like this in their toolbox?”

The Scientific Scoop

Scientifically, inhaling a substance binds molecules to receptors in the nasal cavity, and neurons transmit a signal to the brain—some of those cells connect directly to the part of the brain, the amygdala, that regulates emotional responses.  In short, an inhaled scent can trigger an emotion-based reaction.

Lavender, an essential oil popular for its calming effects, has been the subject of severalstudies on the aromatic effects of essential oils on horses.  

Jim prefers avoiding feeding time when he schedules appointments, so the horse isn’t anxious about the meal. Whenever possible, he likes to work on horses in their stalls with simply a halter and lead rope draped over the neck so the horse can react freely; horses aren’t able to participate as freely in a crosstie set up.

In 2012, McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, conducted a study using lavender aromatherapy on seven horses in their rodeo program that was later published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Researchers measured the horses’ heart rates before and after a stressor—the sound of an air horn—was used near the horses. The study determinedthat 15 minutes of aromatherapy after the loud noise reduced the horses’ heart rates faster than situations in which no aromatherapy was used.

A 2018 study at the University of Arizona by physiology professor Ann Baldwin, Ph.D., tested the heart rates of eight dressage horses using aromatic chamomile and lavender.

Our goal was to study the effects of lavender on the horses in the absence of an external stressor because some horses are naturally more high strung and anxious than others, even in seemingly calm and quiet situations,” Ann explained.

Ann’s study reported that seven of the eight dressage horses relaxed after inhaling lavender, supporting the idea that the diffusion of lavender is effective at physiologically relaxing horses, at least temporarily. And that can impact your horse’s overall well-being.

The value in having this tool is that repeated, acute stress and chronic stress can lead to behavioral and medical ailments such as inflammation, digestive disorders and immunosuppression,” Ann said. Therefore, minimizing stress is critical to maintaining equine health.”

Be aware, though, that some essential oil compounds are considered banned substances by certain organizations—the United States Equestrian Federation, for instance, includes lavender and chamomile on its banned substance list. Neither are specifically listed as banned substances by APHA, but refer to the most current APHA Rule Book for details about the legality of any substance used in competition.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2019 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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