I was reading about self medication a couple of weeks ago, and have got myself a new addition to my dictionary … zoopharmacognosy. What a mouthful! It is the official term for the innate ability an animal has to recognise what medicinal plant they need. This doesn`t just apply to horses, it applies to all animals. I guess humans have this instinct, although it may be long buried, because we sometimes crave certain foods (this is especially noticeable during pregnancy). Zoopharmacognosy is known as the oldest therapy in existence, because many years ago only nature`s medicines were available. Our conventional drugs are still based on medicinal plants. For example, opium is from poppy seeds and was historically used as a pain relief. Nowadays, it is used in the production of morphine.
In the wild, horses roam over vast areas, and if they become unwell they seek out specific plants, herbs, algae, essential oils, clay and other natural remedies to supplement their normal diet, which helps to restore them back to good health.
Interestingly, the medicinal plant tastes sweet and palatable if the body requires it, but if the horse is healthy then they will be deterred from eating it because the same plant will taste bitter. This ensures the survival of medicinal plants and prevents over consumption, which could cause the body to become ill again. This is over dosing in nature!
We are inhibiting these innate needs and abilities when we domesticate horses by managing paddocks; spraying them for weeds, limiting access to woodland or hedgerows, which restricts a domesticated horse`s access to medicinal plants. This means that our horses develop conditions such as sweet itch or laminitis.
There`s a growing movement amongst horse owners called Applied Zoopharmacognosy, which is when horses are offered a selection of medicinal herbs or plants. If a horse needs a particular herb or plant then they will show interest in it; eating, sniffing or rubbing on the remedy. How many people leave a salt lick out for their horse and find that it is ignored for a few weeks, and then used intensively for a couple of days, and then ignored again?
Offering horses a selection of herbs, instead of putting what we feel they need into their diet, reduces the risk of over dosing and wasting money by feeding unnecessarily. Some say that recovery is speeded up because the horse is selecting the herbs that will be most effective to their condition, and eat the correct amount. It would also reduce food wastage when your horse decides that they don`t want to eat the supplement you’ve added to their breakfast! A couple of weeks ago my Mum was telling me about some horses who had selenium toxicity. You can buy vitamin E and selenium supplements, which is an anti-oxidant, performance enhancer and improves muscle functioning. Horses with a deficiency to selenium, often due to soil deficiency, are prone to tying up. However, over feeding selenium causes gait abnormalities, muscle tremors, laboured breath, and death.
You can now buy self-selection packs, which contain small quantities of a variety of herbs and remedies which you can offer to your horse. Packs can be themed; respiratory, or urinary for example, which means that if you notice that your horse is having respiratory difficulties (after speaking to the vet of course) you can offer a small selection of remedies that will specifically target and support the respiratory system.
I haven`t personally used any self selection packs, but my Mum has often led Matt along the hedgerows to let him graze and self-select herbs. It would be interesting to know if others have tried this and how they’ve got on. If you google applied zoopharmacognosy there are hundreds of articles about it. I also looked for a list of medicinal plants and what they do, but most lists were inconclusive. The best list I found can be viewed here. I saw on social media a while ago a photo of a whiteboard that a yard had in the tack room, which had an extensive list of the plants and their properties that they had available for self-selection.