Fertile or Fallow?

Man and animals have used plants for nutrition and medicine for thousands of years. Nature has provided us with a vast variety of botanicals, and through the ages, people have experimented with them, discovering first hand which ones were useful as food and medicine, as well as which ones were harmful. The results of such trial and error were handed down through generations, and often became well-guarded secrets. Horses and their unique conditions were also the subjects of such experimentation and observation, and caretakers became experts as to the benefits and dangers of herbs.

Herbalism, the use of certain plants internally or externally as remedy or nutrient, was widely used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. But during the last century, with the coming of synthetic drugs, herbalism declined rapidly. The "wonder drugs" gained popularity and the use of the natural medicines faded into the background. Fortunately, recent years have shown a definite return to the use of herbs and other natural medicines. Horse caretakers as well are again discovering the benefits of these natural nutrients and medicines called herbs.


herb: a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, nutritional, savory, or aromatic qualities

Modern horsekeeping has restricted the horse's access to varied vegetation, and thus his ability to select beneficial plants for himself. Too often we remove weeds and plants from the pasture that are actually beneficial to our equines. To replace nutrients that are no longer available to the horse, the use of herbal supplements is becoming common practice in many areas.

It must certainly be stressed that herbs are not a cure-all for every condition, and that a qualified vet and herbal practitioner should be consulted. There are times when herbal remedies are not the most appropriate form of treatment, and there are many herbs that can be harmful, in fact deadly, in certain conditions.

Can herbs benefit reproduction?

To reproduce, a mare needs to be in a state of good health and vitality. Good nutrition is paramount, and herbs can play a part in enhancing nutrition, as well as providing medicinal support. The state of health may appear to be good on the outside, but internally there may be lingering toxins and/or disease. The use of herbs to cleanse and detoxify the body is a great idea for any horse, but is particularly useful for the brood mare, who will be providing a safe and nourishing environment for her growing fetus.

Herbs may be safely used to cleanse the system, tone the reproductive muscles, and boost the vitality of the mare. They may make the difference between your mare being fertile or fallow.

Cleansing First

In preparation for breeding, an initial cleansing is recommended. Patti Duffy-Salmon, certified herbologist and enthusiastic equestrian, shares her knowledge. Patti prepares her own herbal mixtures, to individual specifications, for her clients at Meadowsweet Acres.

"It's vital to remember that each horse is an individual, and that herbal medicine, like other alternative therapies, works best when tailored to suit each individual. What may be a good formula for one horse may not be as suitable for another," Patti explains.

"I like to mix my cut herbs (the green leafy tops) separate from my root and bark herbs. Roots and bark must be ground up into a powdered form for our horses to eat and utilize fully through the digestive system. We all know that our horses can turn into beavers and strip our trees in the pastures, but they may not be so inclined to munch down a handful of bark if tossed into their feed bucket!

"For a cleansing diet for many of my horses, I mix into the feed 1 part each of Slippery Elm Bark powder, Dandelion Root powder, Parsley Root powder, and Sarsaparilla Root powder, feeding 1 tablespoon twice daily. I also mix 2 parts Red Clover flowers, Nettle leaves, Plantain leaves, and 1 part Buchu leaves, feeding 1 small handful, twice daily, along with the above powdered herbs. Together, this is my typical cleansing diet which I feed for approximately three weeks."

Patti explains that a "handful" is a regular term when it comes to cut herbs. A handful is almost a cup, give or take a little. Herbal medicine is not an exact science, and it doesn't necessarily require a precise measurement. However, for the powdered form, which is much more concentrated, a handful is never used as a measurement. The powdered herbs are only measured by the tablespoonful, or by ounces.

Breeding Preparation

"To get a mare ready for the breeding shed," Patti advises, " the safe herbs I generally use are Chaste Tree berry, Dong Quai root, Raspberry leaf, Kelp, Rose Hips, and Garlic." These herbs will help tone and strengthen the system, enhance fertility, and help to prevent infection.

"Chaste Tree Berry and Dong Quai root together will help to regulate the cycling mare. I buy it in powdered form, and feed two tablespoons, twice daily, mixed with regular feed. This blend may be fed up to the time of breeding. If, after 30 days, the mare is not in foal, the blend may be resumed again, but the blend must be stopped after the mare has been covered. I find this blend useful also for PMS type mare problems - crankiness, and sour, nasty, kicky, don't-touch-me type problems!

"A mild blend I use for mares that don't have a major problem, or for those with just mild symptoms, is 2 parts Raspberry leaf, 1 part Nettle, 1 part Chamomile, 1 part Lemonbalm, and 1 part whole Chaste Tree berries. I feed the cut form, 1 large handful 2 to 3 times daily.

"A stronger blend that I have used for the problem breeder, or mares with major cycling problems, is made in powdered form - 2 parts Dong Quai root powder, 1 part Chaste Tree berry powder, 1 part Garlic, 1/2 part Licorice root powder. I feed 2 tablespoons, twice daily as needed, depending on that particular mare.

Patti explains, "The mild blend is often fed throughout the year to help a mare with imbalances. The stronger blend I also feed on a regular basis, but I stop the blend for approximately five days every eight weeks. Licorice root tends to make horses and humans both retain water. I always observe the mare carefully for water retention, and hypertension, which may be another side effect of licorice root.

"As soon as the mare has been covered by the stallion, all herbal preparations should be stopped immediately," Patti cautions, "until an ultrasound has either confirmed a pregnancy or found the mare empty."

Finding An Herbal Supplier

Patty advises, "It may be hard for the average horse owner to find and purchase these herbs. I buy my herbs in large quantities, usually 40 to 50 pounds each. I have several mares who are on these blends. If the average owner went into a health food store that carried at least one-pound bags of each herb listed, then he could mix the blends himself, but most stores do not.

"At Meadowsweet Acres, I specialize in custom blends of any mixes a horse owner may need. My clients are thrilled with that. I don't think there is one company in the United States that will offer that. The major horse herbal suppliers are often distributors of imported blends, so the blends cannot be changed or altered in any way.

It takes expertise in formulating "recipes" with herbs. Some strong herbs are best combined with ones that can buffer them, and other herbs are best combined with something that can enhance the effects. Patti has been "herbing" for ten years, and started mixing her own formulas, for herself and others, due to the unavailability of custom blending.Herbs with Grain

"When purchasing herbs and herbal products," Patti cautions, "avoid buying herbals or herbal products that cannot be identified, meaning products that do not have their ingredients listed on the label. Avoid herbs that smell moldy or look very dusty. Crop conditions vary, and so will the quality of the herbs. A good rule of thumb is 'if in doubt, throw it out'."

Patti adds, "Look for dried herbs that are bright and crisp. They should have some sort of aroma. Some herbs are quite bitter, but it should be a healthy-smelling aroma, not a nasty one. Mind you, some folks can take exception to Valerian root. The odor doesn't bother me, but it has sent my husband running out of the house when I've had to use it in a blend! Your supplier should be highly knowledgeable in herbal medicine and equine health. Equines are sensitive creatures, and their herbal needs are different from humans' needs. Some herbs that are helpful to humans are poisonous to horses. Your supplier should have a certified herbalist on hand to answer any questions, and to help tailor the herbs to your horse's needs."

The formulas mentioned in this article are not intended as a substitute for veterinary or other professional care, and may not be appropriate for other horses. Always consult your equine professional before using herbal preparations.

The editors wish to thank Patti Duffy-Salmon and Meadowsweet Acres for assisting with this article. For more information, you can contact Meadowsweet Acres at 181 Wildcreek Road, Shelbyville, TN 37160, 931-684-8838, http://webfiesta.com/meadowsweet

Next Month - Herbs for Breeding, Gestation and Foaling