Equine Practice Pointer: Use of Lavender Essential Oil in Stressed Horses
By: Dr. Sarah Reagan
Instructor & Advisory Board Member at The American Council of Animal Naturopathy
The “Effect of Lavender Aromatherapy on Acute Stressed Horses” was recently published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science; it was co-authored (Aug 2012) by Dr. Edward Ferguson, assistant professor of animal sciences, local veterinarian Dr. H.F. Kleinman, and Justin Browning, instructor of agriculture and rodeo coach. Mr. Browning’s qualification as “rodeo coach” should begin to give you some clue as to why they were investigating stress relief in horses to begin with. The following are some quotes from the article (which you can access in full here):
Ferguson said horses have a heightened sense of sight and sound and this excitable instinct can cause problems to the horse’s health during training or during hauling. “Environmental stimuli like loud noises can cause fear reactions and this repeated pattern can lead to chronic stress, which is known to decrease productivity traits in many farm animals.” [Quotation marks original]
The study tested the ability of lavender aromatherapy to decrease equine heart and respiratory rates following induced acute stress – an air horn in this case – and as a result enhance recovery from the stress.
Since this study is recent and the published article even newer, it is still making its way around the various horse blogs, websites, magazines, etc. As with many “science-based” (using that term loosely) articles of this nature, as an equine health coach, you may get inquiries from clients eager to know if using lavender essential oil can help their horse.
One of the first problems with the assumptions made in the study is that horses have an “excitable instinct”. In both proper domestic settings and in the wild, they do not. Furthermore, the “fight or flight instinct” that is so often attributed to horses has no validity outside of human-centric situations. The problem is, very few “proper” settings exist for the modern domestic horse. It is not that all stress is to be avoided, no more than it should be in humans; every living being needs appropriate physiological stress to maintain homeostasis in the body. But we are talking about abnormal stress here: almost every domestic horse is subjected to multiple stressors abnormal to his biological make-up. We keep horses in boxes (stalls); we make them run around (race tracks and such) when they ordinarily would not; we feed them “food” completely foreign to their physiology; and we treat them like either our slaves or our therapist – just to mention a few of the abnormal stressful situations we place upon our horses. All of these have cumulative effects, and it is no wonder that gastric upset is one of the foremost conditions treated in domestic horses.
A good therapeutic grade Lavender essential oil* can indeed have stress-reducing benefits. It has the ability for tissue regeneration as well as being a vasodilator, relaxant, and anticonvulsant. But it is not, cannot be, a substitute for species appropriate nutrition and ecology. So as an Equine Naturopath/Health Coach, what do you do when a new client contacts you about using lavender or some other essential oil for her “stressed-out” horse? First of all, find out what is happening to make the client think her horse is under stress. There is no way to cover every possible scenario in a simple article, but the first two places to investigate are the diet and lifestyle of the horse – are they species appropriate?
Unfortunately most of the time, the domestic horse’s living situation falls very short of what his needs are. With most clients you will need to start slowly – make a plan to implement changes over a period of time, at the same time providing the reasons why these changes should be implemented. But by all means while these changes are being implemented, introduce the client to the use of therapeutic essential oils to help the horse…and the client typically finds benefit for herself as she uses the oils with the horse!
*CAUTION: Dr. Sarah Reagan and ACAN suggests only the use of Young Living essential oils. Therapeutic grade essential oils are defined not only by being organically or otherwise grown without use of chemical fertilizers (including those plants that are wild harvested), but are also defined by the skill and knowledge of the harvesting time and procedure for the particular plant, as well as the appropriate distillation time and technique for the particular oil (including no use of chemical solvents). True therapeutic grade essential oils have the ability to heal whereas food or perfume grade oils can actually harm the body.
DISCLAIMER: All information contained here is intended for educational purposes only.