It’s that time of year, Spring has sprung, the bird is on the wing, and so are all the flying pests! Those of you with itchy horses are getting ready to protect your precious friends from suffering, and I am here to give you some ideas how to succeed in your mission.
Essential oils relieve itchy skin
Essential oils can be really helpful in combating itchiness, not just to keep pests away but also to help strengthen the skin and increase immunity. However, as with everything, an holistic approach works best and it is important to look at how you can reduce external stressors in your horse’s environment if you want to see a good result.
The skin is the largest organ of the body and the safest place for the body to rid itself of toxins or any other stress and is a good indicator of general wellness, or the first warning of an imbalance. Skin sensitivity, whatever the trigger, suggests that all is not well within the horse’s system and first of all I try to balance and strengthen the whole animal; it is useless simply applying soothing creams if the underlying cause has not been addressed.
The Animal PsychAromatica approach to itchy skin
When treating an animal for any condition it is important to look at all the factors that contribute to the problem. I have found that reducing stress and understanding the natural needs of a species is crucial if you want your animal to fully heal. Otherwise you are using essential oils to reduce symptoms, without addressing the underlying problem. This is the basis of my animal wellness system, Animal PsychAromatica.
Anything that lowers the body’s immune response is likely to make the skin more sensitive to flies, and more prone to having an allergic response. But itching is usually the result of a combination of factors, the first one being genetics. There is a strong hereditary factor to itchiness, which you should bear in mind if you are considering breeding from, or to, an itchy horse. Other factors that can cause a horse to itch are:
- Pain, many horses rub to relieve pain, paying special attention to acu-points,
- Stress, rubbing releases endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormone, which can be
addictive to a horse with no other way to get away from a stressor, such as in a
- Diet, heating foods such as cereals (especially barley and maize) or molasses can
really aggravate itching
- Excess Heat, either internal as in excessive hormones or external as in the
weather, especially if humidity is also high so sweat does not evaporate, limiting
the body’s cooling system.
- Irritants in their environment, such as bedding or weeds
What type of ‘itch’ have you got?
I have found that there are a few broad ‘types’ of horse that are reactive to fly bites and each one needs a slightly different approach and essential oils
Excess hormones – mares that cycle constantly or very strongly, and stallions or geldings with high libido often turn to itching. The first step for this type is to strengthen their Liver and balance their hormones. The oils I commonly use are: rose (Rosa Damascena), geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), cedarwood Atlas (Cedrus atlantica), angelica root ( Angelica archangelica), german chamomile (Chamomila recutita) and occasionally clary sage (Salvia sclarea) or jasmine (Jasminum grandiflora).
The Emotional stoic – this type does not express itself easily, and is over-ready to take on the cares of their human. In extreme cases the horse can seem quite bad-tempered or uncommunicative but they never object to what is asked of them and the human will see them as loyal servants, there is often a deep bond with their person. They tend to be somewhat thick-set for their breed, the oils I commonly use are: yarrow (Achillea millefolium), helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), carrotseed (Daucus carota), frankincense (Boswellia carterii), vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
The thin-skinned worrier – this type is restless and highly strung with fine manes and tails, they often itch obsessively, removing their whole mane over-night but may not itch all the time, the oils I commonly use are: ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides), Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), flouve (anthoxanthum odoratum)
The Geneticist – These are usually Arabian or native ponies, and they have a true allergy to the cullicoides midge. So you must keep them away from this pest (no-see-ums). Protection is the key for this type, I coat their manes, tails and bellies with a clay based lotion containing neem oil and essential oil of Greater Mugwort (Artemesia arborescens), (not common mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which is not safe to use as an essential oil). Great Mugwort is anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory and cooling, offering instant relief from all histaminic reactions. Neem oil repels flies and soothes skin. If necessary use a breathable sweet itch rug.
The Threefold Strategy
Whatever the underlying factors, I have a threefold approach to itchy skin: relieve, protect, repair.
Relieve: first of all we must relieve the discomfort that is causing the itching by removing stressors if possible, then strengthen the immune system and all the meridians with essential oils.
Protect: then protect the skin from further aggravation and give it time to recover, use fly repellents, (I use a natural, neem-based spray of my own that I make especially for the horse I am treating, using the oils the horse selects), a breathable fly rug, or make a mud wallow for your horse to roll in, as it would in the wild (or a combination of all three).
You can simulate the mud puddle by wetting your horse down then letting it roll in a dust bowl, this gives a nice cake of dirt to keep the bugs off the skin.
I might also make a clay-based lotion with the essential oils the horse selected to soothe and protect mane, tail and other areas that are severely rubbed.
Repair: it can take a full year’s cycle to see a complete cessation to the itching, I continue to offer essential oils occasionally through this time to help build healthy skin and a strong immune system, especially in Spring before the itching starts. Spring is a good time to do a herbal de-tox as well. Feed herbs such as calendula, seaweed and rosehip and flax or hemp seed oil to help strengthen the skin and immune system.
Other aromatics I use frequently with all types include
- Calendula macerated oil to soothe and repair skin, and cool internally and externally,
- Neem oil as an insect repellent and skin soother,
- Witch hazel hydrolat is one of the universe’s most soothing, reparative and cooling products and can be used as a spray for instant relief and to help skin repair or mixed with white clay (Do not use ‘shop bought’ witch hazel as it contains high levels of alcohol which will dry the skin and sting).
Using the Animal PsychAromatica system I have freed many horses from the horrible cycle of itching. It takes patience and perseverance, but the results are well worth it. You can learn how to use this system through the online certificate courses here. Or join me at my place in Portugal
Case Study of an unstoppable itcher
Mocha was lead mare at my friend Nathalie’s ranch in Israel, and keeps us all honest with her wise gaze. Mocha has a very strong maternal instinct, adopting any orphaned foal that is brought to her, even producing milk on demand. Nathalie bought Mocha at the end of winter, twelve years ago, and had no idea that come summer her beautiful grey mare would be bald! Every summer was a nightmare, trying to control Mocha’s itching. In the end Nathalie even resorted to steroid injections to stop her suffering.
The first time I saw Mocha was December so she was not actively itching, but she had a stumpy mane and brush-bottle tail, the skin on her neck was thickened, with deep scurfy crevasses from years of rubbing until she bled. According to my Meridian Balance Assessment Mocha had an imbalance in her Spleen, Stomach and Heart meridians, and her immune system was slow. The first oils selected for her were:
- Carrotseed, to nourish and strengthen skin, all smooth muscle and the Earth element;
- Rose, to balance hormones and nourish the heart;
- Great mugwort, anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory.
Each oil was individually diluted in 5 mls of sunflower oil. I also made a lotion containing the selected essential oils, bentonite clay, neem oil and geranium hydrosol, instructing Nathalie to start applying it as soon as Mocha showed any sign of itching.
We kept applying the clay through the summer, and offered her a changing array of oils, geranium and great mugwort being the favourites. By the end of that summer, with diligent application of the clay, Mocha still had a mane; she had rubbed a little on days when the heat and humidity soared but nothing compared to previous years. She was also round, happy and had fully grown into her role of wise-woman.
Through Winter she needed no support from oils and as the next Spring came around she was given a ‘boost’ using angelica root and yarrow. On days where it was uncomfortably hot the clay lotion was applied. Mocha would catch Nathalie’s attention on days when she needed the lotion, staring at her through the fence. If Nathalie didn’t notice Mocha staring she would gently rub her head against the fence. The pictures below tell the story.
A few last tips:
Do not shampoo horses that itch, shampooing removes natural oils and dries skin, cold hosing without shampoo is recommended.
Do not use citronella or other skin irritating essential oils.
Do not use chemical fly sprays or coat conditioners as they can aggravate sensitive skin
Provide adequate shade
Provide free choice mineral/salts and give electrolytes on days when they sweat.