Were Our Horses Drug Addicts?

By Catherine Bird

The reliance on drugs such as opium and cannabis in the care of the horse may explain why we also had extreme training methods to control the ‘drug addicted’ horses.

While reading veterinary texts from the late 1880’s and early 1900’s I began to see a theme. Veterinarians of that time relied heavily on the use of narcotics. Opium in several forms and cannabis were prescribed for common ailments.

Many texts refer to both opium and cannabis when dealing with illness of the horse. After reading up on the prescribing of these drugs, I began to wonder how a horse would have reacted to them in this time period. Drugs can affect the horse on many levels, and possibly the reliance on drugs such as opium and cannabis in the care of the horse may explain why we also had extreme training methods to control the ‘drug addicted’ horses.


The Veterinary Pharmacopoeia, Materia Medica and Therapeutics by George Cresswell, 1886, listed opium available in the following forms:

  • Enema Opii
  • Extractum Opii
  • Linimentum Opii
  • Morphinae Acetas
  • Morphine Hydrocloras
  • Morphine Sulphas
  • Pulvis Ipecacuanhae Compositus
  • Tintura Comphorae Composita
  • Tinctura Opii
  • Unguentum Gallarum cum Opio
  • with most commercial samples generally containing 15% of morphine.

Cresswell goes on to discuss the therapeutic action of opium with its principal action being on the nervous system. He also stated, "It must be pointed out that animals show wide dissimilarity in their degree of susceptibility to its influence." Thoroughbred and other excitable horses were more readily influenced than cart-horses of sluggish temperament. He goes on to state that opium is one of the most valuable and commonly prescribed of the medicinal agents of the Pharmacopoeia.

It was commonly prescribed to relieve pain and spasm. It was used as an antispasmodic in colic, as an expectorant with respiratory disorders, to prevent abortion and relieve post partum pains. It was also applied locally to painful wounds and bruises.


Referring to Cresswell again, there were preparations of Extractum Cannabis Indicae and Tinctura Cannabis Indicae. Also referred to as Indian Hemp, it is soporific (induces stupor and deep sleep), an anodyne (pain reliever) and antispasmodic. It has similar properties to opium and has been given in the treatment of tetanus in horses along with other remedies. Cannabis Indica is one of the ingredients in chloroform, and was thus largely used in veterinary practice for colic, inflammation of the bowels, and other diseases. In irritative fever from wounds in connection with joints, it has a favourable action. The extract was sometimes added to cough balls for horses.

Drug Energy

Drug energy is created when someone abuses a substance that alters the state of mind. This subject may bring up issues for some people, but it is necessary that one becomes aware of how smoking marijuana, or indulging in heavier drugs, does have an effect energetically.

Along with the physical body, we all have 'subtle' bodies – the ego, the astral body, and the etheric body. The ego is where people get to know themselves as independent conscious beings and where they have the power to change themselves inwardly. In the physical body it expresses itself in muscular activity and the blood. The astral body is where awareness of the environment and emotional responses develop. The astral body is particularly active in the nervous system. The etheric body holds the other subtle bodies together; it is particularly active in growth and nutrition of the physical body. When these bodies are in harmony with the Physical Body, then the body is less vulnerable to disease and decay.

If one takes these drugs, it creates different types of damage in the etheric body. Rudolf Steiner’s approach sees that many drugs affect the total constitution - the ego, astral body, etheric body and the physical body. Amphetamines damage the etheric body, leading to a lack of vitality and willpower. LSD gives rise to powerful hallucinations, which cause a slight separation of the etheric body from physical body. Marijuana has a similar but less extreme effect. Heroin completely blocks any sense of guilt or shame. It dislocates the ego from the rest of the constitution, causing the astral body to be dominated by instinctive desires. This can reflect in the person’s behavior. When the ego is affected one has rage, guilt and mania. The astral body displays anxiety, the etheric body shows depression and the physical body shows obsession.

When one takes a drug, part of the high experienced is created by one being able to access the astral dimensions and connecting with the drug energy that has been created, worldwide, by drug use. It is this energy that is a concern because it affects not only us, but our horses as well. It permeates the air like a cloud of smog. When a horse walks through this cloud, he begins to experience symptoms of the use of the drugs in his subtle bodies. It pervades areas and causes many disturbances. The energy sits around and is sticky and sluggish. It clings to whoever is in the vicinity. It is the sort of energy that makes us feel a little nauseous when we walk through it or we may suddenly feel heavy if we enter a room containing it.

Horses, because of their sensitivity to energy of any kind, can be more affected than we are. It may not show up in a physical problem, but we will see a horse's behavior change with exposure to illegal and legal drugs. Once we recognise this behaviour, it often confirms that the area is a high drug use zone, or a groom or rider from that barn may abuse recreational drugs. When people indulge in recreational drugs, they open themselves up to this cloud of drug energy and this exaggerates their “high”. So this cloud of drug energy is self-perpetuating once it has been established.

Training Methods

This may explain why training methods at the turn of the last century were so harsh. If horses were being affected by the medicines they were given, then they would have been difficult to handle. If we look at people who suffer addictions to recreational drugs today - their lack of focus, how they remove their minds from the situation, how some go into a drug induced psychosis and become aggressive - then we can see why we may have had this happening with horses in the 1800’s. There was often a section on ‘taming the horse’ or ‘horse breaking’ in the rear of the home doctoring or veterinarian texts. How differently horses might have been treated if one of the causes of this behavior had not been their medicine.

When the Practical Stock Doctor refers to training horses, with wild and vicious colts it suggests the Rarey method, which involved conquering the horse by depriving him of the use of his limbs, making him feel that he is utterly powerless in the hands of the operator so as to submit to any demands. The author suggested, "With the stubborn or mulish disposition, it might be well to give him a few sharp cuts with the whip about the legs, and close to the body." This reference is kinder than most as they only suggest whipping enough to frighten the horse and with a good deal of fire though without anger, offering the proviso that, "If you cannot control yourself you are not fit to handle horses."

It is quite possible that, had a horse been badly affected by the narcotics in his medicine, he would have been slow to respond to commands, and to such training techniques. An unfortunate circle of events - give the horse a medicine to make him more manageable for work, have the horse consequently become difficult and then requiring "training", injure the horse during the training, and have to give the horse more medicine.


Today we are lucky our herbalists use herbs with horses with a different perspective to the veterinarians of the old days. Our herbalists use gentle herbs and treat the horse with a bigger picture in mind, treating the whole horse. Instead of prescribing opium because the horse has a cough, they have broadened the view of the horse. They see him as an entity, thus prescribing herbs to support all the body systems so it can recover from an immune deficiency that allowed this horse to suffer a cough.

Herbalists no longer rely on herbs with strong effects such as lobelia, digitalis, belladonna, opium, and marijuana. Today's safe use of herbs avoids toxicities and poisonings as well as all the energetic side effects that our horses used to suffer. Do not confuse their herbal use with their use in homoeopathy, which involves a specific preparation negating toxicity.

Effects of Today’s Drugs

With all of this in mind, it is wise to review how we treat our horses with pharmaceuticals and vaccinations. These definitely have a role in our care of the horse, but abuse of these substances can be as harmful as the abuse of the drugs used in the 1880’s.

We can’t simply give horses drugs without consideration. We must observe how our horses respond physically and behaviorally when they are on long-term pharmaceuticals for chronic conditions. If the behavior becomes erratic or other body systems begin to break down, we need to review how we are approaching the horse’s illness.

Pharmaceuticals can produce the same effects as opium and marijuana, and they can create tears and lesions in the energy bodies, and gaps between the bodies. They can also leave energetic residues that then attract the illness you have been fighting and these symptoms show themselves again.

Using Herbs to Minimize the Effects

This is one area where herbal and homoeopathic remedies can play an important role. If our horse begins to show signs of a return of the disease we have been trying to control with pharmaceuticals, herbs and remedies can be used to repair the energy body of the horse. The pharmaceutical has addressed the stubborn physical symptoms and we may see initial improvement, and possibly side effects, then a return of the disease. Then the natural remedies can be introduced to address the energetic effects of the disease, those already there that attracted the disease, and the side effects from the pharmaceuticals.

This way we have the benefit of the scientific community to help the horse regain a certain level of homeostasis with prescribed drugs and then we can address the problem at the energetic level with plants and their energies. The horse now has a better chance of recovery and a healthier life on all levels.

This also highlights an opportunity to apply homoeopathy. It is quite possible that horses today, when they react to pharmaceutical medications, may be carrying a miasm because their inherited genetics have given them a predisposition to react to drugs. If an ancestor was constantly exposed to an irritant, such as opium, then the generations to come often display symptoms of that irritant when triggered. By consulting a homoeopath about the horse’s expression of a drug miasm, then the appropriate remedy is likely to relieve the horse of the genetic predisposition so the reactions to today’s drugs is lessened.

Our horses may have been drug addicts, but they don't have to be anymore.


Anthroposophical Medicine, Healing of Body, Soul and Spirit, Dr. Michael Evans and Iain Rodger

The Veterinary Pharmacopoeia, Materia Medica, and Therapeutics, George Cresswell (1886)

The Practical Stock Doctor, Farmers Short Courses in Livestock (circa 1900)

About the author:

Catherine Bird is a Sydney-based qualified Aromatherapist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist specializing in treating animals. Her clients have included the NSW Mounted Police, Olympic level competitors, and horses in all disciplines as well as backyard pets. She is the author of Horse Scents, Making Sense with Your Horse Using Aromatherapy, which is one of a series being developed and she offers the Equine Aromatherapy Correspondence Course worldwide. For more information see www.hartingdale.com.au/~happyhorses, and http://communities.msn.com/HealthyHappyHorses, or email Catherine directly at happyhorses@hartingdale.com.au