Aromatherapy for Unusual Behaviours

"Following", showing a strong response

By Lyn Palmer

There are many ways a horse communicates with us and one of the most negative ways is through what have come to be known as "vices" or stereotypical behaviours. Much research has been done into cribbing, windsucking and weaving and we are all aware of the pitfalls to the health and indeed forward sale, as these vices must be declared, for a horse that indulges in one of these behaviours.

There are many other lesser compulsive behaviours including aggressive behaviours toward handlers or other horses, bucking, rearing and bolting, fear of clippers or of loading, wood chewing, box walking, stall kicking, pawing, self or rug mutilation, tail rubbing, etc. I was told even the delightful faces and tongue wagglings one of my horses will produce on a cue from me is a compulsive behaviour disorder! A bit over the top, I thought, but which also proves that what one person thinks cute another cannot tolerate.

However some of these behaviours are dangerous, some anti-social and all should be discouraged and minimised by correct farm and stable management, groundwork and riding. Some veterinarians occasionally prescribe drugs to modify behaviour, perhaps where occurrence can be linked to the reproductive system or to calm excessively nervous, fearful or hyperactive horses, but in many cases aromatherapy can help.

Whatever the problem, once you are sure there are no underlying physical causes for a sudden onset of a behaviour, aromatherapy can be a safe and pleasant aid. I do stress this, as you must always be certain that it is not a bodily dysfunction or some other physiological cause and the only person who can confirm that is your veterinarian.

Let me give you a case study as an example. Star, a 15.2hh Danish dressage gelding, at the age of five, had made great strides in his training and had even taken his rider to the 2000 Novice Under 21's International in Ireland where her team won the Gold Medal. He is not a totally straightforward horse; he needed more turn out than is normally feasible for competition horses and was always aggressive to other horses. When I was asked to visit him he had developed a peculiar movement with his head and since the weather was so bad and he was unable to go out as much as he usually did his owner felt that an aromatherapy treatment might be beneficial to him.

As I watched him over the stable door he performed the movement she had described to me. He touched his nose to his right fore coronet band and with his nose almost touching the bedding he swung his neck back and forward three or four times. A quick touch to his right side, then his head came back to the centre and he gave a violent kick straight behind him with his right hind leg. He was one troubled little horse. There was something about this movement that was reminiscent of digestive upset - not so much the actual movement but more the look of inward concentration as he touched his nose to his side. I chose some oils to test on him that would have an emotionally calming effect and with relevance to the digestive system.

He gave an immediate strong reaction to the grounding effects of vetivert, which brought him out of living in his mind to being able to focus on the oils. The antispasmodic effects of chamomile and lavender obtained reaction, and a stronger reaction again to carrot seed and sweet fennel confirmed my thinking that it was a body function problem rather than an emotional one as first thought. After an application of sweet fennel and carrot seed essential oils, which he licked from my hand with the right side of his tongue, we telephoned the owner's veterinarian who came out immediately so I was able to discuss with him the inference of the gelding's choice of oils. The veterinarian's diagnosis? Ulcers or redworm damage. This was then confirmed as ulcerations after some droppings were sent for analysis. Star is now on a course of allopathic treatment and light work; he has stopped both the odd movements with his head and neck and the kicking. He will now be taken forward in his training with the knowledge that he cannot tolerate constant pressure.

Humans often think of having a treatment if they are stressed and indeed it is one of the most useful applications of essential oils, usually linked into massage. Your therapist may also give an essential oil blend to take home to continue the therapeutic effect in the bath or shower. My experiences in using essential oils with horses as a way of helping them cope with stress problems, which are often the cause of stereotypic behaviour, are equally positive with some very interesting results being obtained in what I call the "emotional zone". The effect on their minds is fascinating, even more so than humans, as the horse still has instant access to the instinctive brain that we humans have evolved beyond! In fact, due to the instinctive brain a horse will actually 'choose' his own treatment in the same way as in the wild he would choose which herbage would be good for his health.

Physiologically, although I massage horses all over, the diluted oils are not applied all over the body as with a human. When a massage is complete and there are specific spasms or an inflammation, either a single oil or a blend of oils is applied to the area once the horse has "approved" the blend. Usually, for equine treatment, a water-based gel is used as the carrier, or even better an aloe vera based gel, rather than the normal carrier oil used for humans. Absorption into the bloodstream is just as effective but gel doesn't clog the horse's coat. These oils are chosen from my professional knowledge of their active chemical constituents and proven effects on the body. Twelve important groups of chemical constituents have been isolated, and essential oils whose main components belong in the same group will give similar effects, so it is just a matter of knowledge and experience in choosing the most appropriate oil in that instance.

However, if you wish to use essential oils with your horse you don't need to complete an aromatherapy diploma to do so, as he will guide you to what he needs. All you need are to know some basic safety rules on dilution rates, have a good working knowledge of your horse, be observant and use a lot of common sense. A very important point to note is that the oils that are hormonally balancing should never be offered to pregnant or lactating mares. There are several others that could cause abortion so I would not offer any but the gentlest oils such as lavender or mandarin during pregnancy and not even those in the first part of the pregnancy. I feel that if you want to play oils with your horse that it is safer to wait until after weaning.

Occasionally a horse may get a skin reaction to an essential oil - stop using it immediately as it may cause a toxicity problem with that horse. Also some oils are phototoxic. If you have offered bergamot or any of the citrus or bud oils to your horse, ensure that he isn't allowed out into strong sunshine for at least 12 hours.

Finally, you should never force a horse to sniff an oil nor should you apply an essential oil unless the horse shows that he is interested in it - that would be like you being forced to wear that perfume that gives you the headache - it could actually cause imbalances in his body.

Good quality essential oils are expensive to purchase, but have the greatest therapeutic value. Once you have discovered what your horse responds to, you dilute the oils in a cold pressed vegetable oil. A 12ml dark glass bottle filled to the shoulder with sweet almond carrier oil or similar can then have 12 single drops of the chosen oil added to it. You may then use this diluted form to confirm his treatment choice and application area without further dilution. It may not seem like much but the horse's olfactory system is so efficient it will work and should even be sufficient to complete a course of treatment, as you need to apply so little. Label it clearly and keep in a cool, dark place. This ensures that your bottles of oils do not become contaminated and spoilt.

So before I give a list of essential oils I have found to be useful I had better give clear directions for testing. Take each bottle of oil individually and offer to the horse. Do not place the bottle right up to his nose, but place the open bottle in front of his nose and waft it back and forth three or four times and then hold it central to his nostrils.

Licking from the hand - the method Inter chose for application

If he is not interested in the essential oil you have offered he may show no response or he may even turn his head away.

If he is interested in the essential oil you offer him he may lean forward towards the bottle. If he does this draw it away from him slowly and see if he stays interested. You may get varying degrees of interest, ranging from his head and neck following to stepping forward as you move the bottle away. You may get the horse curling his lip in response as in a flehmen, or trying to lick the top of the bottle. Make a note of the oils you offer and his response to them on a scale of "very interested" to "no interest".

Once the horse has been tested with the oils you will probably find that there are two or three in which he expresses strong interest. You then have to decide how to apply them. The easiest way is to offer the final selection of oils, again one at a time, starting with the one in which he expressed most interest. Watch carefully, he may again try to "eat" the bottle. If so pour a very small "dribble" of the ready diluted oil into your hand and offer it to him again; he may lick the oil off your hand (watch how he does this. Does he lick with the top of his tongue, the underside of his tongue? This sometimes indicates a right brain or left brain approach to his needs or that the problem, if physical, is relevant to that "side" of the horse. Or he may accept you placing this oil onto his poll or on the underside of his throat. Often oils that have emotional significance are accepted on the poll even if the horse is normally headshy!

Repeat this process with each oil of the final selection and then offer these final oils twice a day until interest is no longer shown. It is important to continue to offer the oils for as long as they last or up to two weeks even if he doesn't indicate an actual application of the oil. Quite often the chemical constituents in the aroma alone are sufficient to stimulate the body without an application. Keep a note each day of the response and application as well as how and if the behaviour you are trying to treat is modified.

From my many case histories the following are oils whose emotional effects have been found to help.

Basil tonic to nerves; mental stimulant; for lack of self-confidence and panic

Bergamot anti depressant; calming, uplifting, balancing, encouraging, healing, refreshing, sedative to the nervous system; for frustration, impatience, and intolerance

Chamomile calming and sedative; for irritability and impatience

Clary Sage calms anger; useful for nervous fatigue and indecisiveness; hormone-like so it balances mood swings

Frankincense for uncontrolled fear, nervousness; deepens and calms breathing

Geranium hormonally balancing, especially in mares; calms anxiety; nerve tonic; rouses one out of apathy

Grapefruit uplifting; relieves stress and boredom; "brain sunshine!"

Jasmine restorative, reassuring; releases repressed emotions; enables one to "feel good", and improves self-confidence, especially geldings

Lavender for emotional pain; balancing, calming, sedative; nerve tonic

Lemon clears mind; nerve tonic; for confusion

Marjoram (Sweet) In relation to the brain it is comforting; nervine; restorative, sedative; warming; also an anaphrodisiac - diminishes sexual desire - very useful for stallions!

Neroli Antidepressant, restorative, soothing; tonic; sedative but uplifting

Nutmeg analgesic, calming, comforting, soothing, tonic, cephalic very useful in cases of anger

Patchouli for one bored with repetitive work; uplifting, inspiring, centring; similar in use to jasmine and ylang ylang but for mares

Rose for deep seated emotional problems, repressed fear, introverted individuals; hormonally balancing, especially in mares

Vetivert Calming, grounding, protective, sedative (nervous and mental), soothing but uplifting

There is one final point I would like to make before you start helping your horse with essential oils - none of the above provings are "set in stone". It is important to remember that each horse is an individual and what the essential oils are doing with this method of use is to stimulate the horse's own body to heal itself. Unusual and undesirable behaviours are often rooted in the emotional zone and I have found essential oils are very powerful in helping to release emotional problems. The chemical signatures of the oils are recognised by the cilia of the individual's olfactory system and messages are sent from the hypothalamus gland to the endocrine system to release the necessary hormones to help balance the body. So although the uses of the oils listed above are what I have found to be the usual, there is nothing to say that some other oil with a similar chemotype wouldn't achieve the same effects for YOUR horse, so do not be afraid to experiment with whatever oils you have available. All you have to remember is the correct dilution rate and the common sense safety rules, which I outlined above. Enjoy some quality time with your horse sharing the pleasures of essential oils!

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional veterinary care.

About the author
Lyn Palmer owns and runs a dressage schooling and livery yard, with her daughter Vikki, near Glastonbury, Somerset, UK. After qualifying as an aromatherapist she found that the use of essential oils with some of the 'problem' horses who came for schooling transformed their attitude to work and their re-education, and offered a gentle and holistic support to sympathetic training and management. Due to the yard and competition commitments she only travels to treatments within a 50 mile radius but holds weekend courses at the farm on using aromatherapy with your horse and takes email consultations world wide. In the UK, correctly diluted essential oils can be mailed with appropriate treatment advice directly to the owner. Lyn can be contacted at