Scented Horses

by Catherine Bird

All photos courtesy of Catherine Bird

Aromatherapy came to Australian beauty salons a few decades ago. Fortunately, we don't have to take our horses and sit them on a treatment table to get the benefits of essential oils. There is also no need to apply the essential oils to the entire horse; they work extremely well with spot applications where needed.

You can make up a blend of essential oils to help with a sore muscle, bruising or swelling, fungal skin infections or tendon problems, and apply them, diluted in a vegetable 'base oil', to areas you wish to address.

The plant kingdom offers many plants with scent from which we can extract essential oils. These plants usually have a traditional herbal use as well. The essential oils, being more concentrated, can be used for 'herbal' purposes as well as for the behavioural factor they offer.

Essential oils work two ways with your horse. He may have a physical problem that needs to be addressed or an emotional one. For a physical problem, you can apply the essential oils, diluted in carrier oil or cream, onto the area so the molecules of the essential oil can find their way via the hair follicles into the bloodstream. For an emotional problem, your horse can inhale the molecules of a scent and have it trigger the release of neuro-chemicals in every body cell to help relax or relieve fears.

Care does have to be taken if you are competing at FEI levels where you may be tested for drug use as some essential oils do contain constituents that will test positive. The American Show Horse Association lists eucalyptus and peppermint as prohibited. Also, any essential oil with a high camphor content such as rosemary should be used with care. As a general guide, most essential oils will be metabolised out of the horse's body system via the urinary tract within in a week; however, it would be wise to check with a trained aromatherapist as heavier resin based oils may take longer than this.

Essential oils are concentrated and may be up to 70 times stronger in their therapeutic action than if you applied the herbs from which they originated. Because of this we can make up an effective aromatherapy blend as a dilution of only 2.5 to 3 percent essential oils in a vegetable-based oil. If you are using them for their psychological use, a few drops sniffed off a tissue will suffice as it only takes seconds for the body to respond.

Your Basic Essential Oil Kit

Catherine at 1999 Sydney Cup giving Cross Swords one last sniff of chamomile, frankincense and bergamot before Julie Higgins, disabled rider, takes him to the mounting yard to lead the field out onto the track.


Basil is traditionally used for any sort of spasm. It is useful in old and new muscle spasms. I find it particularly useful in show-jumping horses when their shoulders tighten up. The dressage horse and rider always benefit from a quick sniff of basil before a test, as it sharpens the mind and helps retain focus on the task at hand.


Bergamot will help relieve any skin irritations and it is useful in addressing mild skin eruptions caused by an allergic reaction, or insect bites. Bergamot is a favourite for dealing with "butterflies' in the stomach. It eases away anxieties and clears the air so pre-event jitters do not incapacitate you.


Chamomile is an expensive essential oil, but worth every cent. It helps the muscles utilise magnesium so you don't have the muscle cramp or spasm from intense work. It is traditionally the 'tantrum' remedy in small children and will calm your horse in minutes if he is being the difficult demanding child.


Eucalyptus is a handy essential oil to have around to ward off winter ills. If you have the scent of eucalyptus wafting around your stable it prevents germs from jumping through the air, acting as a negative ion generator. Eucalyptus is useful in a post-event muscle rub. It is also an essential oil that freshens up an environment and is useful to have around for horses that are confined in stables for long periods of time. It lifts the spirits and creates a 'bush' [outdoor] feel in the stables.


True Red has been having aromatherapy massages long enough to help select the oils he wishes to have applied to his aches and pains.

Frankincense is an old wound healer. I use this in a wash for wounds that are slow to heal. It also helps with respiratory disorders in a chest rub. The Ancients used frankincense to drive away evil spirits, it is the 'fear' essential oil and useful if a horse is reluctant to go on a float or trailer. Use it if you can feel a heartbeat rise between your legs when you most need your horse to keep his composure to compete.


Geranium is another oil useful in addressing stuck aching muscles. It helps relieve spasms while providing a mild analgesic effect so you can massage the muscle more deeply when needed. This essential oil balances hormones and moods. I like using this on young, moody, and sometimes-temperamental race fillies.


Lavender soothes heat. Useful when addressing inflammation and can be applied gently to bruising and swelling to facilitate recovery. This essential oil will also take the heat out of emotionally steamy situations. When stress is causing disruptions to preparations during a competition, have lavender handy on a tissue or as a perfume; it will help minimise heated altercations between competitors and grooms.


No need to buy your horse a bunch of flowers; now you can just use lavender essential oil!

Lemongrass has an affinity with myofascial tissue and is useful in the recovery of tendon problems as well as shin soreness. This oil is a favourite to burn at home when learning dressage tests, or to sniff while walking the course the day before a cross-country event. It helps you retain your learning.

Tea Tree

Tea tree oil has traditionally been used by aboriginal horsemen, who brushed the branch of the tea tree bush across the back of a horse with Queensland itch. It is useful in a blend of essential oils for rain scald and ringworm, as well as in a wash for wounds to prevent infection.

Careful Use of Essential Oils

  • As your horse's skin is much more sensitive than your own, NEVER apply essential oils to his skin undiluted.
  • Always remember the strength of essential oils. You will get a response to a 3 percent dilution if you have chosen the correct oils; there is no 'fool's' measure. So adding extra drops 'just to make sure' does not work, it only exposes your horse to the chance of a negative reaction.
  • If your horse does have a reaction to essential oils or you accidentally get some in his eye, never use water to wash them off. Water will increase the irritability of essential oils to the skin, so use your vegetable base oil or milk. The albumin content of milk will help dilute the essential oils and soothe the skin.
  • Never give essential oils to your horse to ingest. They are strictly for topical applications and inhalation only. The only oils you should ever use for feeding will be identified as "food grade" oils.
  • Never use essential oils for a condition without consulting your veterinarian first. A veterinarian is the only one who can diagnose problems. Today many veterinarians are willing and able to discuss the use of complementary therapies.

Catherine can be contacted at:

Healthy Happy Horses, Naturally

PO Box 670, Randwick, NSW Australia

Catherine Bird is a Sydney-based qualified Aromatherapist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist specializing in treating animals. Her clients include the NSW Mounted Police as well as showjumpers, eventers, endurance, dressage and racehorses along with dogs and humans. She is a member of the International Association of Equine Sports Massage Therapists.

Catherine is authoring a series of books about natural therapies for horses, drawing on case histories gathered from her experience. "Horse Scents, Making Sense with Your Horse Using Aromatherapy" is now available. Catherine has worked and studied both in Australia and in the United States with some of the world's foremost equine therapists.