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What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy has been used therapeutically for centuries and is more recently being applied to veterinary medicine in horses. Aromatherapy uses essential oils to stimulate your horse's sense of smell. The reaction in the olfactory system triggers a reaction in your horse's hypothalamus that causes your horse’s endocrine system to release neurochemicals. These neurochemicals elicit emotional responses in your horse, instilling a sense of calm, stimulation, contentment or a variety of other responses. Horses are prey animals and have a very strong sense of smell connected to their limbic system, which controls the fight or flight response. Aromatherapy can therefore be used to alter your horse's state of mind, making them more responsive and cooperative to training or handling. Essential oils are usually introduced to your horse by applying to the horse’s skin or holding an object with the essential oil in front of your horse for them to inhale. 

Aromatherapy does not replace veterinary care and acute or serious conditions must be treated by modern veterinary medicine. It is, however, useful when used in conjunction with veterinary therapy to elicit cooperation and reduce pain and stress responses. It should be remembered that essential oils are concentrated, and can be up to 70 times more powerful than the source plant. Plants contain compounds that at high concentrations can have detrimental effects or even be toxic, therefore, use of essential oils by a trained therapist with knowledge of appropriate dosage and dilution is important. Essential oils used for aromatherapy should be diluted in a carrier oil and not ingested. Aromatherapy should be administered by or under the supervision of a trained veterinary therapist and, if a medical condition is present, under the advice of a veterinarian in conjunction with traditional veterinary treatment.

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Aromatherapy Procedure in Horses

Essential oils are diluted with carrier oils, as in their pure form they are extremely concentrated. Carrier oils include sweet almond, coconut, olive, sunflower and vegetable oils. Neat oils should not be used. A qualified aromatherapist will have an understanding of what oils, dosages and carriers to use. A therapist will introduce different essential oils to your horse to gauge their reaction. If your horse turns away from a scent, it is not attractive to him, and unlikely to be beneficial. If applied on the skin, essential oils must be diluted or they will cause irritation. Small patch tests should be performed on the skin to determine if an allergic or dermatological reaction occurs before applying to a widespread area. Avoid eyes and ears when applying essential oils and do not allow them to be ingested. If essential oils are accidentally instilled in eyes or an allergic reaction occurs on skin, dilute with carrier oil--not water. A veterinarian should be consulted if your mare is pregnant before treatment with aromatherapy. Essential oils should not be applied to broken skin.

Essential oil can be applied to your horse's skin where their body heat will cause the scent to disseminate into the air around your horse and be inhaled, or can be placed on your hand or a cloth to waft in front of your horse to stimulate the release of neurochemicals. Oil can also be sprayed on horse blankets or in stalls. 

Some commonly used aromatherapy essential oils and the conditions they are associated with include:

  • Lavender for anxiety and inflammation
  • Clary sage, geranium for endocrine imbalance (mares)
  • Geranium, basil, lavender, marjoram for muscle spasms
  • Eucalyptus, balsam fir, lavender for overexerted muscles
  • Bergamot, tea tree, lemongrass, myrtle, and lavender for skin irritations, rain rot, scratches/mud fever
  • Chamomile and frankincense for muscles and calming 

Efficacy of Aromatherapy in Horses

Aromatherapy is not a replacement for veterinary care and should never be used to treat medical conditions without consultation by a veterinarian. Used in conjunction with veterinary care, it may prove beneficial. Aromatherapy is generally recognized as being effective at adjusting temperament issues and is useful for addressing behavior, performance, and training issues.

Aromatherapy Recovery in Horses

Do not allow your horse to lick or chew their skin or items that have been saturated with essential oils. If essential oils are applied to the skin, keep your horse out of direct sunlight or hot weather for a period of time afterward as essential oils could increase the risk of skin burning.

Monitor your horse for dermatological reactions if essential oil was applied to their skin.

Cost of Aromatherapy in Horses

The cost for aromatherapy treatment by a trained aromatherapist with your horse is usually $45 to $110 per session. Once appropriate oils and doses have been determined, your therapist may be able to instruct you to perform aromatherapy in subsequent sessions. 

Horse Aromatherapy Considerations

Some essential oils are prohibited by governing bodies for certain equine performance events. For example, peppermint and eucalyptus are considered to be performance enhancing by some organizations. Essential oil applied to the skin can absorb and show up in urine tests shortly thereafter. Therapy with essential oils should be used at least seven days prior to competing where such regulations exist.

Aromatherapy Prevention in Horses

Ensuring that your horse does not lick essential oil applied to their skin or have access to pure essentail oils during aromatherapy sessions which are highly concentrated and could cause illness or toxicity is important. Aromatherapy is often conducted as a preventative therapy for addressing your horse's state of mind and addressing muscle conditions prior to negative behaviors or pain developing.