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the anima Herbal Recipe Book - notes & recipes by Dr. Christine King

Chapter 1: Why Feed Herbs?

Using herbs in horses is a no-brainer for me. Horses are herbivores; they are designed by nature to live on a diet of plants. Although horses and other herbivores do occasionally eat animal-source items, generally they do so by choice only in situations of nutritional deficiency, when their needs are not being met by their vegetarian diet. (While a horse may eat a baloney sandwich, that doesn’t mean the baloney was the draw, or even that it was liked.) When an adequate quantity, quality, and variety of plant material is available, horses choose—and thrive on—plants.

So, plants are the principal nutrient source for horses. The neat thing is that many plants also have medicinal properties. Not only do we humans know that, animals seem to instinctively know it, too. (In fact, we may have learned much of it from them.) Self-medication is a specific behavior that biologists have only lately begun to study but that indigenous people and herdsmen have known about for as long as humans and animals have been living together. Both wild and domesticated animals have been observed to select specific plants and even eat soil, clay, and charcoal when ill, injured, parasitized, or otherwise unhealthy. I have witnessed this behavior many times in my patients. In fact, I rely on it when I’m unsure of what to provide an animal for nutritional or medicinal benefit.

Herbs as food and medicine

Taking a metaphorical leaf from nature’s book, in my veterinary practice I use herbs for two primary purposes: as food and as medicine. Of course, there’s a great deal of overlap there, because it’s as Hippocrates advised:

“Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine thy food.”

In fact, I suspect that one of the ways medicinal herbs aid in healing is by providing nutrients which have been lacking in the animal’s diet. Certainly, there’s more going on biochemically (and, I believe, energetically) with the more potent medicinal herbs. But for me the line is very much blurred between nutrition and medicine.

Still, to keep it as simple as possible, I’ve divided the recipes in this book into two general categories:

* herbs as food (chapter 2)

* herbs as medicine (chapter 3)

You may be tempted to jump straight to the second group of recipes, especially if your horse has a current medical problem. But please give the first group of recipes a good look, too. When we eat well, there is less need for medicine of any kind, whether herbal, homeopathic, nutritional, or pharmaceutical.

Although I use each of those classes of medicine in my veterinary practice, time and again I’ve found that simply changing the horse’s diet can be enough to correct whatever medical, performance, or even behavioral problem I was called out to treat. Whether horse or human, our bodies are designed to be self-maintaining and self-repairing, and that’s the way they function—provided that they have all the nutrients they need to do so.

By the way, this book is primarily about herbs for horses, but I do use herbs in other herbivores and in dogs and cats as well, both nutritionally and medicinally. Where appropriate, you’ll see notes on suggested use of the blend for dogs and cats.

More on herbs as food

Here’s my philosophy on feeding horses: Regardless of age, breed, occupation, dollar value, performance level, or health status, horses do best when fed a diet that is as close as possible to what nature has provided for them—a wide variety of plants that changes with the seasons.

“As close as possible” will mean different things for different horses and in different circumstances, but the fundamentals are the same for all. While the typical performance horse is required to do far more than his wild or feral counterparts, his physiology is the same. He is still a horse, and he will do best when fed a diet to which the horse’s digestive system and metabolism have adapted over the millennia.

the horse’s natural diet

The horse's natural diet consists of many different grasses, legumes, and various other meadow and woodland plants. Naturalists estimate that wild or feral horses may browse from at least 50 different types of plants, depending on what’s available in that location at that time. The variety comes not just from the range of plant species available, but also from the variations in plant types, parts (roots, stems, bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds), and constituents with the different seasons.

One might argue that wild or feral horses eat this way because they must, simply to survive. There certainly is a “make do” element to the way wild or feral horses live in most parts of the world. But having practiced both conventionally and holistically during my veterinary career, I can attest to the health benefits gained by attempting to replicate that variety in the way we feed domesticated horses.

the typical domestic horse’s diet

In growing energy-rich foods for our horses and other livestock, we have sacrificed variety for calories, convenience, and economy. The typical domestic horse's diet is very limited in variety, particularly if the horse has little or no access to natural pastures, woodlands, or other uncultivated areas.

Most horses are fed just one or two types of hay, day in and day out. While there may be a few other plants mixed in, most hays are grown as monocrops—an entire field sown with just one species of grass or legume. That’s not the way nature does it; and it’s not the best way of maintaining healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy animals. Diversity is a fundamental property of a healthy ecosystem, and of a healthy diet.

Even if the horse does have access to pasture, many pastures are overgrazed, seeded with just a few human-selected plant species, or treated with herbicides, so they provide little variety or range of plant nutrients. Regardless of whether some alfalfa or a grain-based concentrate is added, the typical equine diet is profoundly lacking in variety when compared with the horse’s natural diet.

Not only is variety of plant species lacking in this diet, so too is the quality and quantity of phytonutrients (plant-source nutrients), because processing and storage cause a progressive decline in the more fragile phytonutrients, including vitamins, essential fatty acids, and various other antioxidant substances naturally found in abundance in fresh plant material.

Most processed horse feeds are “fortified” with vitamins and minerals, and some these days even contain added antioxidants. But in my opinion the quality, variety, complexity, and synergy of phytonutrients cannot be completely replicated or replaced with factory-made supplements, especially those that contain man-made or industrialized ingredients. For all our knowledge and ingenuity, we still cannot recompose an apple out of a collection of its analyzed parts.

Obviously, horses can survive on the limited variety provided by the typical diet, but they do not thrive on this diet. Over time, various chronic health problems appear that we take for granted are simply caused by “aging.” The truth is that these conditions are largely preventable with good management, which includes good nutrition. The same can be said for many other common ailments, such as colic, heaves, laminitis, and exercise-related muscle disorders. Good food is fundamental to good health, and good food for a horse includes a wide variety of suitable plants.

providing more variety

To recap, horses are designed to get all of their nutrient needs from plants and the soils in which they grow. But the twin keys here are quality and variety. Healthy soils are soils that are rich—in both numbers and diversity—in microbes, minerals, and organic matter. Healthy soils make for healthy plants, which make for healthy horses.

The vitamins and minerals found in plants generally are more bioavailable (more readily absorbed and put to use by the body) than those added to the diet in an inorganic, chelated, or otherwise isolated or artificial form. The plant has already done the work of assimilating minerals from the soil, enmeshing them with its own living molecules, and thus putting them to use in its own biochemical processes.

Nature has already figured this out for the horse. We would be wise to follow her lead and feed a diet that consists of a wide variety of plants and plant parts that have had little or no processing—i.e. whole foods. The recipes in this book consist, for the most part, of whole-food,* plant-based nutrition.

(*Even though almost all of the herbs used in these recipes comprise only certain parts of a plant [e.g. just the root or the fruit] and some are powdered, they are still considered "whole foods" because they are not processed beyond being cut and dried, and in some cases powdered. They are not extracts or isolates, nor in any other way reduced or refined; they are still essentially in their natural state.)

The more variety we offer of plants grown in well-tended soils, the more likely the body will get all it needs in the way of primary nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals) and cofactors (trace minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, beneficial bacteria, and probably some other substances we don’t yet know about). And the less we’ll need to use supplements—including the ones in this book—to meet the shortfall and keep our horses healthy for life. All of these nutrients are essential for maintaining good health, tissue repair, vitality, and longevity.

Ideally, the horse would get the bulk of his nutrient needs by grazing healthy pastures, meadows, and woodland areas, with any shortfall made up by feeding a mix of good quality hays (grasses and legumes) and perhaps more calorie-dense supplements as needed. But when good grazing is not available or advisable for whatever reason, I use herbs to add variety and fill in the nutritional gaps that are inevitable with a hay-based or highly processed diet. The recipes in the next chapter (Herbs as Food) are formulated to do just that.

While on the subject of variety, I try to source hays and herbs from as many different geographic areas as I can. The less fossil fuels burned in getting the plants from soil to horse, the better. On the other hand, gathering plants from several different areas ensures that local or regional soil deficiencies or defective farming practices have less of an impact on the overall diet. Another consideration is whether to support local agriculture exclusively or also support small farmers in other parts of the globe. These are issues you must explore and decide for yourself.

The herbs used in these recipes

There are a mind-boggling number and variety of plants that have nutritional or medicinal properties. On every continent except Antarctica, there exists the plant life necessary to support the life and health of the animals who live there. (And one might argue that in Antarctic waters the role is filled by algae and other tiny phyto-organisms.) One way to put it is that there is tremendous "redundancy" built into the system. Lots of substitutions and variations on the theme are possible here, thanks to the creativity and generosity of nature.

When developing these herbal goodies for horses, I decided to stick with plants that are native or naturalized to North America, because this is where I currently live and practice. If you are more at home with the plants of Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, or Australia, then please substitute as you like.


I also took care to choose herbs that are known to be safe for horses to eat in fairly liberal quantities. The herbs used in these recipes have a long history of nutritional or medicinal use in horses. That was very important to me, as not all medicinal herbs are safe to use in horses or have a wide safety margin in this species. All of the herbs used in these recipes have a wide safety margin in horses, except where noted.


Particularly when formulating the primarily nutritive blends, I chose herbs that are readily eaten by horses. Just as we do, horses select their foods in large part by taste and smell. I took that into account when formulating these blends, so the results are both nutritious and delicious. (I know that because I sometimes make a tea of the seasonal Meadow Blends, and I often take one of the Vitality blends in a glass of water.) The most important thing when I’m formulating is that the blend must do what I intend for it to do nutritionally or medicinally. A close second, though, is that it must taste good, or at least be tolerable.

Even so, taste can be a highly individual thing, and our appetites for specific foods can change according to our body’s needs. That is the basis of the self-medication behavior observed in horses and other animals (and also in humans). Having seen this behavior many times in my practice (and experienced it first-hand when grocery shopping), I have no trouble believing this phenomenon to be real and relevant to the horse’s health and well-being.

So, the best approach when feeding herbs to horses may be to offer a variety of well-chosen herbs individually and free choice, and let the horse choose what, when, and how much to eat. The problem is that this approach is not practical for most people. I continue to explore this issue of free-choice herbs, but in the meantime the blends included in this book do a fairly good job of being acceptable to, and meeting the needs of, most horses in most circumstances.


Copyright © 2011 Christine M. King. All rights reserved.


All content: Copyright © Christine M. King, 2005-present. All rights reserved.
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