Alternative treatments outside of traditional medicine are gaining traction in the horse industry. One of these treatments are the use of essential oils. Many throughout the world feel that essential oils are beneficial to their animals. This has led to multiple essential oils being sold and made available to horse owners today. Yet, there are still many questions that surround these alternative therapies and their effectiveness in horses.
What Exactly Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are those classified as plant extracts that are used as alternative medicine and are typically applied as a topical medicine or used as aromatherapy. Compounds from the plants are extracted either by distillation or through cold pressing. They are then combined with a carrier oil that gives them their name “essential oils.” Many only consider “true” essential oils as those that retain their natural flavor and smell and are derived directly from a plant. Some oils, created chemically (not distilled or cold pressed), are not considered true essential oils.
The list of essential oils that are used for horses is quite extensive and growing. At the end of this article, we list some that are available to you. The most common, cited by many sources, include lavender, tea tree oil, geranium, peppermint, frankincense, and many others.
As a side note, it is important not to confuse essential oils with oils that we use to feed our horses. For example, oil like Tribute’s Wholesome Blends™ Omega Plus oil supplement is a food quality oil that is meant to be fed and consumed by your horses. Many food quality oils are those that are providing additional essential omega fatty acids and are usually top dressed on a horse’s feed.
Essential oils differ because they are not meant to be consumed by horses. In fact, some essential oils, like tea tree oil or eucalyptus, can be toxic if ingested by a horse. Thus, some essential oils must always be used with caution.
Is There Scientific Evidence to Back Up the Effectiveness of Essential Oils for Horses?
Here is where the discussion about essential oils gets interesting. First and foremost, the data in horses is incredibly limited on the effectiveness of essential oils. Research in other species can be helpful. These studies have been used to support some claims of the health benefits of essential oils in horses. Yet, because of their increase in popularity, there has been a push to do more research in essential oils, with some promising results to date.
Lavender oil has long been used as a calming agent. A study published in 2017 appears to support the effectiveness of reducing a horse’s stress response when lavender oil was applied 20 minutes prior to a stressful situation. This data appears to agree to earlier studies in horses and studies in other species of a reduced stress response when lavender oil was used as aromatherapy. Because lavender oil has been shown to be effective, it is one of the most used essential oils. However, you should exercise caution if you compete with your horses because lavender oil is BANNED by some riding organizations. Thus, if you show or compete with your horses, it is always wise to check with your association for their banned substance list before using any essential oil, like lavender oil.
Another aspect of research that is showing promising results is the use of essential oils as an antimicrobial. With an increase in antimicrobial resistance to many antibiotics and other medicines, any alternative therapy, like essential oils, would be most welcomed by the medical community. A study published in 2016 demonstrated that, under laboratory conditions (not on a live horse), both thyme and oregano extracts, which were made into essential oils, had strong antimicrobial properties against bacteria (Staphylococcus xylosus) commonly found in the nasal mucosa of horses. This also appears to agree with results from other studies in other species supporting essential oils as having good antimicrobial properties. These could then be applied to any wounds as an antiseptic and aid in healing. However, more data is needed to substantiate these claims, and we are a long way from these initial pilot studies to clinical application. There are many compounds that have some antimicrobial properties in vitro (laboratory studies) that don’t make it to market because they may be ineffective or, oftentimes, require such high doses to have antimicrobial properties in the animal that they would be lethal.
Finally, another promising area of essential oil effectiveness is as a treatment to inflamed skin due to insect bites, and many essential oils have been reported to be excellent natural insect repellents. A study conducted in Australia in 2020 found that topically applying an herbal spray (camphor, lemongrass, may chang, peppermint, patchouli) was effective in reducing the severity of insect bite hypersensitivity, or what is also called “sweet itch.” Research into the effectiveness of other essential oils or follow ups to these studies is undoubtedly ongoing around the world.
How You Can Use Essential Oils with Your Horses
While research results are exciting and demonstrate the potential use of essential oils as alternative therapies for horses, you should always be cautious when first using them. It is always recommended to discuss the use of any essential oil with your veterinarian. This is because many essential oils are produced in extremely concentrated volumes. Thus, most will require some careful preparation and dilution before being safely used with your horse.
One of the most important tips to remember when using any essential oil is that they should never be added to a horse’s food or water. They should only be used as a topical remedy or as aromatherapy. Additionally, some essential oils may be toxic, like tea tree oil, or they can cause an allergic reaction.
Some general tips when first using essential oils include:
- Always be sure to follow manufacturer’s recommendations. This is especially true when it comes to diluting any essential oil.
- Never apply any essential oil to the skin of the horse until it is diluted. It is often recommended to apply a small amount to the skin of a horse when first using it to check for any allergic reactions.
- Horses have a keen sense of smell; thus, any aromatherapy should slowly be introduced. Some recommend spreading the oil on your hands and then letting your horse sniff them first.
- More is NEVER better. Always be cautious in amounts used and follow manufacturer's instructions.
- Avoid blue tansy, garlic, yarrow, clover buds, wintergreen, and birch essential oils for your horses.
- If ever in doubt on using any essential oil, always check with your veterinarian for advice.
Which Essential Oils are Recommended for Horses?
Below is a list of some common essential oils for horses and their purported claims. As a reminder, many of the benefits claimed for many of these essential oils are anecdotal, meaning they are not backed by scientific research in horses. However, scientists around the world are now investigating the benefits of essential oils.
Lavender claims to help with anxiety, provide pain relief, alleviate difficulty with breathing, stress relief, can stimulate healing and is used as an insect repellent.
Peppermint claims to provide pain relief, has anti-inflammatory properties, gives horses better mental clarity, alleviates difficulty with breathing, and improves circulation.
Chamomile claims to help alleviate stress and relax horses, aids in digestion and liver health, helps with anxiety, provides stress relief, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Tea Tree Oil claims to be an antiseptic that can help treat wounds, insect bites or other skin irritation due to its antimicrobial properties. It is especially useful as an insect repellent. CAUTION with horses, as tea tree oil can be toxic and should never be ingested.
Geranium claims to be useful as an anti-stress and anti-anxiety essential oil. Also purported to help alleviate sore muscles. Additionally, it can be a good insect repellent and has antimicrobial properties, which would be useful to help treat wounds, insect bites or other skin irritation.
Eucalyptus claims to help alleviate difficulty with breathing, helps improve mood of the horse, can be useful as an insect repellent and improves immune system function. CAUTION with horses, as eucalyptus can be toxic if ingested.
Lemongrass claims to help horses learn and focus. It can be useful in strengthening a horse’s immune system and can help alleviate pain. Lemongrass has been recommended to help treat sore shins and horses with tendon injuries.
Frankincense claims to help improve a horse’s mood, strengthen their immune system, and has good antiseptic qualities to treat wounds. Others recommend using to help alleviate breathing difficulties.
Carrot Seed claims to help with irritated skin, alleviate joint pain or discomfort, promotes general improved liver function, and strengthen hooves.
Basil claims to help relieve muscle soreness and tension and improves focus and alertness.
Bergamot claims to help reduce anxiety and stress in horses. It is useful as an antiseptic and alleviates skin irritation, insect bites and can help improve digestion and immunity.
Juniper claims to have both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Useful as an antiseptic to treat wounds, insect bites, or skin irritation. Also, can act as an antidiuretic with horses that are retaining water.
Poutaraund, A. et al. (2017). Lavender essential oil decreases stress response of horses. Environmental Chemistry Letters. Published online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10311-017-0681-8
Huerta, B. et al. (2016). Essential oils in the control of infections by Straphylococcus xylosus in horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 38:19-23.
Cox, A. et al. (2020). Essential oil sprays reduce clinical signs of insect bite hypersensitivity in horses. Australian Veterinary Journal. Published online at https://doi.org/10.1111/avj.12963