Do you smell that? Ah yes, that's the soothing aroma of essential oils, and they are making a statement when it comes to self-care. You’ve probably swiped your card for the likes of a diffuser, lavender pillow spray, rosehip oil balancing facial, hemp hair mask, peppermint headache cream, or any other combination of appealing products from a local boutique or healthcare store. And people aren't the only ones hopping on the essential oils train; animals, equines included, are receiving treatments from their owners.
Essential oils is popular business right now but there is a lot of mainstream buzz surrounding their measurable effects. There's no doubt some people feel as though the oils help, but research and regulation is still lacking. You might be wondering if essential oils are safe and beneficial for your horse, but you probably have a lot of questions, and we did, too. So let’s get down to business and discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of using essential oils as a health supplement or training tool for our beloved horses.
The Buzz About Essential Oils
You may be thinking, what even is an essential oil? Basically, an essential oil is a concentrated compound extracted from a plant. Each oil captures the essential aspects of the plant – it’s scent, flavor, and makeup.
Oils come from a variety of plants, each claiming to provide different benefits for the user. These oils can be a natural way to provide relief from a variety of ailments and are used internally, topically, or through aromatherapy. For example, basil can be used to help control muscle spasms, chamomile can help muscles recover faster from high-intensity work, eucalyptus creates a fresh feeling environment and lightens spirits (perfect for those pre-show nerves), tea tree can help prevent infections, the list goes on.
“...to say essential oils can fix behavioral issues might be a little short sighted...they can be part of a complete program.”
Although essential oils are natural, there is still very little regulation around these products. Research indicates that using a variety of essential oils can produce positive effects, but there are not many studies to support these findings or the effects of using oils over an extended period of time.
It’s important to recognize that when we are talking about essential oils for horses, we don’t mean using any plain old store brand item, especially if you are interested in feeding or using the oils directly on your horse. Look for an organic option – which will be free of pesticides – and make sure you are buying an oil in its pure form (no filler ingredients).
“You wouldn’t want to get any essential oil at the supermarket and feed it to your horse,” says Ellie Breiner, an aromatherapist certified through AromaTouch and the Aromahead Institute. “A lot of essential oil companies claim they are pure or that there are no added ingredients, but that’s not always true. It’s important to find an oil that is only coming from a pure source.”
Holistic Horse Care and the Big Picture Approach
Liv Gude holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Science from Texas A&M University and began her career as a professional groom with three-time Olympic bronze medalist, Guenter Seidel. Now a competitor riding at the grand prix level, Liv experiments with integrating holistic approaches to her horse’s overall care.
For her horses, Liv uses the essential oils as aromatherapy. This is done by letting horses breathe in an essential oil – without direct contact to their skin – for a short amount of time or by putting the oil in a household diffuser near the horse’s stall.
She has tested a variety of essential oil products and has incorporated many of them into horses’ training regimes. Although she has seen positive responses, she is very strategic in her uses and takes a reserved approach with oils. She regularly uses them as an added tool, but focuses on the bigger picture when assessing the needs of a nervous horse.
"I like to experiment with the oils at home as a supplemental training tool, so that when I am at a show the smell of the oil helps put them in their mindset.”
“We can train horses to do all sorts of crazy things,” Liv says. “There are behavioral issues that can be addressed by training, but to say essential oils can fix behavioral issues might be a little short sighted. Look at the holistic picture and when you do, essential oils might become a part of that.
“If you have a nervous horse and you would like to incorporate essential oils into your regime, be smart about it,” she says. “It's more than just letting your horse sniff some lavender before a ride. Is the horse’s diet correct? Is he or she getting plenty of turnout? Are they in a training program?”
In combination with essential oil therapies and basic training techniques, Ellie has also seen an improvement in nervous competition horses by treating the different underlying issues.
“I would give a horse the choice of three or four different oils,” Ellie says. “Depending on which nostril they smell from is going to lead me to see if this horse has an emotional or a physical ailment. So, if they smell from the left nostril it’s going to lead me to believe that the horse has some sort of emotional issues. Then if they go to the right nostril it is a physical problem. Sometimes they go back and forth. Their body is going to lead them to the oil that they need the most.”
Customize Your Horse’s Treatment
American dressage rider, Kim Herslow, regularly uses essential oils on her horses. She studied equine science in college and went on to pursue a full-time career as a top-level rider and FEI trainer.
Kim anticipates how her horses are going to act and uses different essential oils to help keep them focused on the task at hand. She wants to be proactive to the point where her horses are never in a situation where they feel extremely nervous. “I use essential oils to help with my horses' focus and vision to hopefully help train them for situations where they could get nervous,” Kim says.
As a trainer bringing horses to the highest level of competition, Kim carefully works with each horse to see which oils best support their specific needs. “I let the horses tell me what works best for them. Each of my horses are different, they all have different personalities, behave differently at shows, and train differently at home. I like to experiment with the oils at home as a supplemental training tool so that when I am at a show, the smell of the oil helps put them in their mindset.”
Despite the potential benefits, Kim is careful about what she gives to her competition horses. Lavender, for instance, is a banned substance by both the U.S. Equestrian Federation and Fédération Equestre Internationale. Always check the drugs and medications rules before giving your horse any new supplement. If you are uncertain about a certain product, err on the side of caution.
Contrasting Application Results
Although she has seen some success incorporating essential oils into her own program, Liv doesn’t always trust the buzz around the product due to the lack of regulation for both humans and horses.
“I'm skeptical of the formulas that are available,” Liv says. “There is little regulation, which means you can’t guarantee that the product is safe, tested, in a proper concentration, and prepared and bottled in sterile situations.”
Furthermore, the techniques in which riders deliver the oil to the horse’s system differs widely.
Liv says she would never suggest feeding any oils to the horses or directly applying them to a horse’s skin.
“My own personal yoga practice began years ago, and it's quite common for yoga teachers to incorporate essential oils into their teaching,” Liv says. “During one class, my skin was blistered by essential oils from a teacher's hands. I can't imagine ever using essential oils directly on my horse's skin for this very reason and I would also never add oils to a horse's diet. If essential oils have the capability to blister my skin, imagine what a reaction in your horse's digestive system might be.”
Ellie is not a rider herself but is married to grand prix show jumper, Luis Galindo. Based in Wellington, Fla., the couple founded Sweet Drops For Horses, a company that makes essential oil candy for horses. Their oils have aromatic, topical, and internal uses. However, Ellie explains, “Essential oils are very strong. We really suggest diluting the oils when using them.”
Like any treatment, Ellie tests a small amount out on each horse by giving them the chance to first smell and then allows them pick their therapy. If she notices any bit of irritation she stops treatment immediately.
Kim also applies the oils topically. “What I tend to do is I rub it in my hand and I let the horse breathe the oils in for around 15 seconds, and then I usually do drops along their spine. I like to rub a little bit on their jowls so when they start moving they catch little bits of the scent. I try to envision what I want the horses to get out of the ride and picture how I want the test and the warm up to go. With that in mind I will apply the oils to different areas.”
Keep in mind that each horse reacts differently to factors in their lives. Essential oils can be a useful addition to your program, but it shouldn’t be depended on as a solve-all training tool. Most importantly, make sure when you investigate purchasing a product that it is a pure essential oil from a reputable source.
From what I’ve learned about essentials, the moral of the story is self-care is just as important for your horse as it is for yourself, but Liv cautions that, “it’s unfair and unwise to think that an essential oil will 'fix' a behavior in your horse, but they can be part of a complete program.”
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Graphics by Alli Addison.