A Better Alternative: Aromatherapy

Some people swear by aromatherapy; others think it smells like a bunch of bunk. Horse Nation’s alternative modalities guru Liz Barnard weighs in.

From Liz:

When I want to relax and unwind, I step into a tub of hot water with lavender scented bubble bath in it.  So before a competition when my horse is edgy and jittery he’s going to be calmed by some lavender balm, right?

How about the smell of lilacs or lemon–for us those definitely have more appeal than the smell of a dirty stall.  Does it matter to your horse though?  Aside from the negative effects of dust and ammonia on their respiratory tract, does the smell matter?  Most of my horses seem to defecate or urinate as soon as I put them in a nice fresh clean stall.  I’m inclined to think they prefer it to smell, uh, homey.

Remember last week when talking about herbs I pointed out that a horse’s digestive tract is different from ours?  Similarly, might it be that what smells good to us, may not be the same as what smells good to a horse?  That’s my polite way of suggesting we keep in mind that horses are not people.  While there are similarities (breathe oxygen, nurse our young) there are differences (herbivore, four legged, etc.).  Many alternative therapies do transfer easily between humans and horses (once anatomical differences are accounted for).  However there are some key differences that mean not everything that works for us will be equally effective for our horse.  The reverse is true, too–I have never heard of a doctor recommending giving a human infant Banamine when they are colicky.

There seems to be a lack of scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of aromatherapy in general.  That being said, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence for the use of it.  Certainly no one can refute the popularity of aromatherapy.  Often times it is used in conjunction with other modalities, such as massage.

Assuming aromatherapy works, how does it work?  One school of thought seems to embrace the idea that the scents work on the olfactory nerves, which in turn send signals to the limbic area of the brain.  Another school of thought comes at it from a pharmacological standpoint, that of the specific properties of the oils like heating or cooling.  There are even those that hold the essential oils are a way to concentrate the vibrational energy of the specific plants they come from which in turn can help balance the energy field of the body.

Um, yeah–while I’ll admit that aromatherapy isn’t really my thing, I have to tell you that I have sincerely uttered some weirder sounding things than that last sentence.  We’ll get to those another day.  The take home message being that if aromatherapy does have an effect on us or our horses, no one is exactly sure how that effect happens.  My advice is to pick the explanation that best fits your worldview.

With aromatherapy there are two ways to administer the essential oils.  One way is to diffuse the oil into the air–that way it is inhaled only.  The other way is to dilute it with a carrier oil and apply it to the body.  This second way it may be inhaled as well as act on the skin and hair, perhaps even getting absorbed into the body and the bloodstream.  In both cases, it is imperative to know of any harm that a particular oil or combination of oils may do.  Several of the essential oils can be skin irritants or cause photosensitivity, even when diluted with a carrier oil.

In a sense, anytime you give your horse a liniment bath, you are giving him some aromatherapy.  The combination of menthol and other oils works to stimulate your horse’s circulation, to help him recover from a workout.  In this case there is no carrier oil; instead the oils are often diluted in alcohol.  The menthol gives that icy-hot feeling as it helps dilate the capillaries near the skin surface.  Yes, the alcohol evaporating does some of that too, but we’re ignoring that for the moment.

As for anecdotal evidence, I have one mare for which I can pretty well vouch peppermint oil is a stimulant.  At least she becomes very talkative anytime I have peppermints in my pocket within fifty feet of her.  In fact she becomes downright demanding.  Is that not what we meant by being more alert?

I freely admit that I struggle to really get behind aromatherapy.  Although given the choice between bergamot and orange peel versus decaying mouse carcass behind the wall, you can safely put money on me preferring the first option.  My dog on the other hand is almost definitely trying to find the carcass to roll in.  So, where do my horses stand?  Our horses certainly have a better sense of smell than we do.  Like my mare being able to smell the peppermint candies in their wrappers in my pocket from a ways away.  She likes peppermints, but does she want to have peppermint oil on her?

At times I suspect aromatherapy for horses is mostly for the owner’s or rider’s benefit.  While I won’t tell you that aromatherapy doesn’t work for your horse, I am not able to tell you that it does work.  If you feel it helps and does no harm, then go for it.  Although, like we covered last week, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you or your horse.  So, I will ask that if you choose to use aromatherapy with your horse please know what you are using and the desired effects.  More importantly, please know the possible side-effects and any possible reasons not to use any particular oils.

As always, when in doubt, check with your vet.

As a postscript of sorts, I am eager to get some feedback, even a discussion going here on this.  I’ll say it a third time–aromatherapy is not my thing.  However, I do try to keep an open mind and would love to hear of positive results people have gotten with aromatherapy.  Please, share your thoughts.

About Liz:  Like many here, I was always a horse-crazy kid.  After receiving my Bachelors of Science in Equine Science, I started training horses.  At some point it occurred to me that there were ways to make a living that were easier on my body.  So I changed careers and became a Licensed Massage Therapist and Equinology Equine Body Worker.  I love what I do.  Growing up riding in the Pacific Northwest I was spoiled with indoor arenas.  Now living in the high desert of Northern Nevada where covered arenas are as sparse as the trees, I find I’m a fair weather rider.  When I do ride, I dabble with Reined Cow Horses.  For more info, please visit my website www.lizbarnard.massagetherapy.com.

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