Herbs for the Arthritic Horse

By Patti Duffy-Salmon

Today we are living a lot longer than we did 50 years ago and this holds true for our beloved equine as well. As our horses get older they can develop arthritis type problems.

There are many products on the market to help with arthritis. This article will be about HERBS that can help with the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. There are other supplements on the market such as glucosamine, MSM, methionine, chondroitin sulfates, and vitamins to name just a few. All these supplements certainly have their place in our battle with old age and stiff joints, and are especially beneficial to horses with joint problems.

Since I am an herbalist, I will cover only herbal supplements and how they can help your horse, and I will also try to give the pros and cons where needed.

What is arthritis? Arthritis is a condition that causes minor inflammation and tissue damage in the joints of the body. There are many different forms of arthritis, but the most common form in equines is osteoarthritis. Arthritis is a degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis usually occurs over time and can be caused by certain activities and just general wear and tear on the joints themselves over a lifetime of hard work. This wear and tear affects the cartilage at the ends of bones and the once smooth surface of this cartilage becomes rough, which produces friction. This can cause the bones to become deformed and painful. Basically you will end up having bone on bone with no cartilage in between.

Horses can develop arthritis in almost any joint of the body, but the more common areas are the fetlocks, knees, hocks and hips. Horses who have been used in very strenuous activities such as racing, barrel racing, jumping and cross country eventing may be more prone to developing arthritis at an earlier age than the average horse, but I am sure there are horses out there who have beat the odds.

Lets start with the three most common herbs used for pain and inflammation. They are White willow bark, Devil's claw, and Yucca. Each of these herbs has totally different active constituents and each one works a bit differently than the other.

Yucca {Yucca Filamentosa}

The medicinal parts of this plant are the leaves and roots of non flowering plants. Yucca's main claim to fame is its high saponin content. It contains steroid saponins. Many have claimed to have success with using yucca to help arthritis type problems, but I have found it to be only somewhat reliable. Yucca is better indicated for the liver. Yucca can lead to stomach upset, cramps and pain. I cannot take yucca myself as it gives me a chronic stomach pain the entire time I am using it. I feel that the other herbs available will work better and are safer with fewer side effects than yucca.

Devil's Claw {Harpagophytum procumbens}

The medicinal part of this plant is the dried roots. Devil's claw will work well on arthritis type conditions. Harpagophytum, which is one of its active compounds, is a very good appetite stimulant and it has antiphlogistic (inflammation reducing) and analgesic (pain relieving) effects. The one problem with Devil's claw is that it does stimulate gastric juice secretion and shouldn't be over used if stomach or duodenal ulcers are present as it could aggravate these conditions. This herb should not be used on pregnant horses.

White Willow Bark {Salix Species}

The medicinal part of this tree is its actual bark. The bark is usually ground up into a powder form to be easily fed to the horse, or one may make an herbal extraction from the bark itself. Salix nigra is American willow and this is where our modern day aspirin was first discovered. The glycosides in white willow consist of salicylic acid, salicin, and salicortin.

The effectiveness of white willow depends on the proportion of salicin present, but in general terms, white willow bark works very well as an aspirin or 'bute' replacement with no side effects such as those associated with aspirin. Many have concerns that white willow will have similar side effects that are associated with an overdose of aspirin, but one must keep in mind that the white willow bark contains many other compounds that help to balance this herb, whereas today's aspirin is super concentrated and can cause stomach complaints and ulcers.

A few other herbs that many may not be aware of that may help and are usually used in herbal combinations are: Meadowsweet herb, Burdock root, Chamomile flowers, Rosemary leaf, and Celery seed.

Meadowsweet Herb {Filipendula Ulmaria}

This will be a difficult herb for most folks to find, because the part of the plant that contains the highest amount of salicylaldehyde is in the flower heads, but the body and leaves do contain a small amount. Most often Meadowsweet herb is used for colds, coughs and bronchitis and does help with minor digestive problems. This herb also has some analgesic properties and may help with minor aches and pains in the arthritic horse.

Rosemary Leaf {Rosemarinus Officinalis} and Celery {Apium Graveolens}

Rosemary contains a high percentage of volatile oil along with many active constituents. Rosemary will help with circulation and thus aid the arthritic horse. Celery seeds and roots are usually used as a diuretic but also have anti-inflammatory actions as well. A small amount of each of these herbs could benefit the arthritic horse.

Chamomile Flowers {Matricaria Chamomilla}

The medicinal parts of the Chamomile plant are the whole flowers. Chamomile flowers have been used for centuries to help with a large assortment of medicinal conditions, most notably digestive upset, loss of appetite, the common cold and to help heal wounds and burns. But Chamomile does have anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties and will help ease some of the arthritic horse's aches and pains. Chamomile flowers contain a high percentage of volatile oil, one of which is chamazulene. Chamomile also contains many flavonoids and a compound called hydroxycoumarins. The main active constituents are the flavonoids and essential oils. This combination has antiphlogistic and antispasmodic effects. The anti-inflammatory effect is caused by the chamomile flavones.

Burdock {Arctium Lappa}

The medicinal part used is the root of the common burdock plant. Yes, this is that rather nasty looking huge plant with those sticky burrs that get into horses manes and tails! Burdock is a very good blood purifier, antiseptic and diuretic. I always like to use a good blood cleanser/purifier when treating horses with arthritis conditions. Burdock root contains a bitter glycoside called arctiin, a bitter principle Lappin, and inulin which is a polysaccharide, but shouldn't be confused with insulin, which is not the same thing. There are also flavonoids, mucilage, resin, oils, lactones, tannin and an un-named antibiotic substance.

I like to use a combination of herbs when treating a horse. Each herb has its own set of actions so it's important to be careful when combining herbs to cover a range of related problems, and one needs to treat the cause as well as the symptoms. There is also a synergistic interaction between various plants and even among the plants' active constituents themselves. So it is always best to treat the whole horse and not just a symptom. When treating for arthritis I like to use a blood cleaner and a good liver detox as well as herbs for the pain, and of course this depends on each horse's individual condition. Every animal is different and should be treated as such.

Herbally, there is much that can be offered to the older, arthritic horse to help him or her be much more comfortable and live a longer, more active life.

About the author:

Patti Duffy-Salmon, owner and master herbalist of Meadowsweet Acre Herbs, specializes in custom blended herbs for horses, especially for EPM, laminitis, Cushings and PMS mares. Free phone consultations, a print catalog and an on-line catalog are available. Visit Patti and Meadowsweet Acres at www.meadowherbs.com .

This is an informational article only and is not intended to replace veterinary or professional care.