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Horses, Herbs and Spices - By Dr Tom Shurlock

There has been a long-standing partnership between horses, herbs and spices whether its garlic to deter insects, valerian as a calmer, devil’s claw to alleviate joint pain, or mint just because horses like it. These interactions have built up over the years because people believe they are effective and because natural “remedies” always have an appeal; there may also be a belief they keep the vet away.

However, it must be stressed that natural remedies are not a cure as such, but they can – and do – support the body’s natural mechanisms which combat all the physical, physiological and metabolic stresses and strains that life throws at all of us. And it is down to the make-up of these herbs and spices, both in some of their shared components but also in active ingredients unique to individual species.

Broadly speaking there are several major bioactive components and it is the interplay between these that give each individual plant its own unique role in chosen functions. One of the most recognisable actives are the essential oils; they are, in fact, terpenes and terpenoids not oils and are essential because they produce essence! They have a number of characteristics; they show anti-microbial and anthelminthic effects, whether it is the antimalarial properties of artemisinin, or the antifungal properties of turmerone. They are also involved in the inflammation cycle.

There are also a family of bioactive compounds, the phenols. They range from flavonoids to phenolic acids and are mainly antioxidants in action. Due to the interaction between oxidative and inflammatory parameters they can also support aspects of the inflammatory/immunity processes and often act in conjunction with the essential oils.

Thirdly there are a number of other compounds; saponins, alkaloids, surfactants, pectins and bioactive peptides. This is not a complete list and there are many other compounds with both positive and negative effects across species. What may be helpful to know, all the above are part of the plants natural defence mechanism against microbial invasion and, in some cases, being eaten (the bitterness of some plants, for instance).

However, the combination of the various components, and the vast species variants of the major chemical groups has meant that humanity has learned which herbs, or spices, are perceived as beneficial in supporting normal function in differing circumstance, both for themselves and their horses – menthol as an airway supporter, devil’s claw for joint health, and garlic as a general antibacterial. In fact, nowadays there is such a bewildering array of herbs/spices for every conceivable situation, it is hard to make a decision on which one to use.

Some are known to interact with drugs, such as garlic and NSAID, whilst others contain negative products such as opiates, caffeine or steroids, and so choosing herbal “remedies” should be backed up with research that has been carried out.

Turmeric is one such spice. There has been a massive pool of research, both in humans and domestic animals – including the horse – and is well documented for a number of characteristics across the board for equine welfare. It can support muscle mass and joint health, maintains the integrity of skin, vascular and airway systems and act as a powerful antioxidant. It is non-toxic and, with the correct nutritional support, has a significant length of activity in the body. In line with the “horsey” herbs – Devil’s Claw, Echinacea, Garlic etc. – turmeric can support a range of equine issues.